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Martha Neary

Martha Neary is the PsyberGuide Project Manager, based at University of California, Irvine. Martha’s broad and varied research interests include healthcare disparities among minority populations, the integration of technology into mental health interventions, and early education, particularly in the areas of health and sexuality.

The field of mental health care faces a number of challenges, and those providing and seeking professional support often have to grapple with issues such as access to insurance, access to treatment, and lack of mental health education. One challenge less visible to the naked eye, but nonetheless very real, is mental health stigma. More than any other type of illnesses, mental health problems often receive negative judgments and stigmatization, stemming from a lack of knowledge and understanding of mental health. Many people experiencing mental health problems not only have to cope with their symptoms and experience but may also suffer from social exclusion and prejudices. Stigma doesn’t always just come from the outside; because these prejudices are so ingrained in our society, stigma can be internalized, and people can come to believe that they themselves are of lesser value because of their own mental health.

People have dedicated their professional lives to the study of mental health stigma; there is a long and complex history, far beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say that stigma manifests itself in silence. While conversations around physical health and wellbeing are commonplace, mental illness continues to be one topic people don’t want to talk about, despite increasing rates of depression and suicide. This silence and “taboo” around mental health can inhibit people seeking help; if you’ve grown up in a world where mental health is not something to be openly discussed, you may, understandably, be reluctant to ask others for help. Thankfully, things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go before people can openly discuss mental wellbeing in a healthy and productive way.

Health technologies have a role to play in the battle against mental health stigma. Apps and other technologies for mental health increase accessibility to support, which can help normalize mental health care. Apps are not for everyone, but they can be a great first step for many people’s help-seeking — engaging with a mental health app can help show someone that mental health management is possible, and encourage them to seek additional support or see a professional. Mental health apps can also help increase education and awareness around mental health, which are key factors in overcoming stigma. Some apps have even succeeded in making self-care and mental health management “trendy” — apps like Headspace, Calm and Woebot have done a tremendous job of marketing their products in a fun, engaging and youthful way.

Apps have often been heralded as a “stigma-free” way for people to access mental health support. Nowadays, people who seek support don’t necessarily need to go to a doctor or therapists’ office, or even speak to anyone or disclose their mental health issues; they can download an app, and use it discreetly and privately on their personal smartphone. Great, right? Yes and no.

Anything that increases accessibility to mental health support is, of course, positive, but I worry that these apps aren’t doing anything to help the societal problem of mental health stigma. When people can get support without ever talking about their experience to another human being, is the cycle of stigma is being perpetuated? Ultimately, the power that mental health stigma holds will only truly start to weaken when we engage in open, honest and compassionate conversations with one another about our experiences.

At PsyberGuide, we encourage people to use mental health apps as a starting point for conversations around mental health. We hope that increased accessibility to mental health resources and apps will help to normalize these conversations and in turn decrease stigma. Just as you might suggest a helpful app to a friend who needs help with their time management, fitness tracking, or navigation, with a whole range of mental health apps to choose from you might also say “Oh, I have an app for that!”.

For more information on mental health stigma and how we can fight it, you can visit nami.org and read about their StigmaFree campaign.