MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Inside the Mind of Stephen Fry
On mental health and how to get help.
Stephen Fry is an internationally adored writer and actor. He is also president of the mental health organization Mind, and has spoken publicly—with typical eloquence—about having bipolar disorder and how he sought help.
We spoke to Stephen about how new technologies can aid mental health.
Helping people manage their mental health is complex—how do you think technology can help?
The App Store is awash with mindfulness and other such apps, some of which, I can’t doubt, have uses that will be helpful to many. But in my view the best that can be got from technology is connection with others.
Stigma, misunderstanding, and a feeling of being alone are major issues that magnify and multiply mental health problems, and there has never been anything like that availability of friendly, affirming voices in the history of our species. While there are forums and rooms within larger social media spheres, apps can be very useful to create smaller cohorts that filter out the possibility of bullies and malevolent spirits.
Have you used any of these mindfulness and mood tracking apps yourself?
I have used both kinds. Mood diaries are a useful, trusted, and proven method for some to stand back a little and be able to look at their states of mind, moods, and how they trend and cycle.
Which apps and technologies does Mind recommend?
Mind is very careful to recommend that those with any serious kind of mental health issue should see a proper qualified practitioner first. Ideally their GP can guide and help them work through their symptoms and any diagnosis before suggesting protocols, therapies, and courses of treatment. It would be irresponsible to suggest any other approach.
But Mind is there to help show that there are many paths to some kind of help and a knowledge of the growing field of apps is all part of that. Mind also helps families, friends, spouses, and lovers feel that they aren’t alone.
Are there other unexplored areas app developers could look into to help people manage their mental health?
It’s important for app developers in the mental health field to be sure unverifiable claims aren’t being made that could raise false hopes and, for example, cause unnecessary expenditure on inappropriate purchases.
The overwhelming majority of developers, of course, are not trying to fool or encourage those with mental health problems into believing that a cure or even reliable solace and improvement is available just through the purchase of an app. The most likely path to improvement, in my view, comes with tiny steps in all kinds of different directions.
The most likely path to improvement, in my view, comes with tiny steps in all kinds of different directions.
First and foremost a visit to your doctor and, if she or he isn’t helpful, quiet but insistent return visits until you feel you are being attended to and understood. Then come a host of possibilities, none of which on their own are guaranteed to help but which in combination do seem to offer some help, and none of which can harm!
Exercise. Diet. Sleep. Relaxation techniques like meditation. Mood diaries. Animal companionship. Making friends around the world who can share stories of similar conditions. Music. NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] techniques. And many of these can be guided, improved, enhanced, and made easier to achieve with the use of competent, well-designed, friendly, and honest apps.
Can you foresee greater collaboration between mental health organizations and tech companies?
As AI improves, as big data gives researchers, academics, and neuroscientists of all kinds a greater understanding of the complex flux of interpenetrating variables that govern cognition, mood, and behavior, as our interpretation of the wiring and chemistry of the chambers, networks, and regions of the brain becomes more and more accurate, as imaging and understanding improve…well, so will the possibility of staggeringly interesting apps and devices.
In the meantime let’s concentrate on one thing. The most urgent thing of all. Humans are now more likely to be killed by themselves than by warfare or crime.
As understanding improves, so will the possibility of staggeringly interesting apps and devices.
Any form of early warning diagnostic or alarm that can save even a tiny percentage from killing themselves or allow a family or friends to intervene to prevent a suicide…how worthwhile would that be?
How proud could a developer feel at such an achievement? So if I were to suggest any field that app developers could help with most urgently it wouldn’t be in producing yet another meditation or mindfulness app, but in thinking intelligently and insightfully about suicide and self-harm. Perhaps we should institute a prize…