Henry Ford was once quoted as saying, “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
The world has seen advances in communications that few could have imagined only fifty years ago. Since the invention of the worldwide web in 1973, there has been a virtual explosion of new technologies that allow us to communicate better, faster and in more ways than ever. In less than 10 years we have seen fledging social networking venues expand to claim over 50% of Americans as users of social networking tools and 61% of the population who primarily seek their health information online.
While the business world has eagerly embraced the Internet and social networking to extend their reach and create new markets, mental health and social service providers have been slower to realize the potential that new technologies offer us. The potential to: reach new audiences with messages of hope; provide information about mental health and wellness; link consumers to services and each other; empower consumers to take charge of their mental health care; organize for needed policy change; and to improve our own business practices to name but a few of the opportunities that await us.
The early successes of the MHA-NYC in applying technology to help realize our mission of advocacy, education and service innovation should provide encouragement for others to harness the power of technology to help them meet their goals. In our role as administrator of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL), MHA-NYC manages NSPL’s online social networking communities. Both NSPL and Lifenet, MHA-NYC’s local family of hotlines lines and online resources, use social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook to provide our consumers and supporters with relevant information — ranging from depression and PTSD to coping skills and resources for bullying.
Other innovative technological ventures include the creation our Lifeline Gallery. Lifeline Gallery creates a safe space where, through the creation of avatars, or online representations of themselves, survivors of suicide, suicide attempt survivors, those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and suicide prevention specialists can share their stories of hope and recovery. In the two years since the inception of the Lifeline Gallery, over 600 individuals have shared their stories which are heard by over 3,000 visitors a month.
MHA-NYC is also piloting chat and texting functionality through Veterans Chat and 1-800-LifeNet. By knowing our communities and the demographics of our consumers, we can match available technologies with the communications preferences of the audiences we want to reach. For example, we know that youth, on average, send over 3,000 texts a month and that communities of color are more likely to use mobile applications and mobile web services than traditional internet service. This type of information helps guide our choice of online communications strategies.
Other applications of behavioral health technologies such as the use of personal health records, online availability of wellness trainings, online support groups, online libraries and resources can all reduce the stigma of reaching out for help and increase consumer participation and knowledge. Curated interactive technologies also hold promise for increasing consumers’ participation in activities that promote mental health and wellbeing.
Making help and information accessible and easy to use through technology can help to remove significant barriers to needed care and information. Furthermore, these tools increase our efficiency and can help us better track and evaluate our results. Gone is the day of guessing impact of messaging- we now have the capacity to measure impressions, clicks and community dialogue.
Looking ahead, MHA-NYC hopes to join with others to create a dialogue within the mental health community about how we can more effectively use technology to promote mental health and wellness across diverse communities. We can’t afford to let the traditions of the mental health community blind us to this potential.