Can Technology Help Us With Our Mental Health Challenges?

Dinesh Kandanchatha | May 4, 2021 | 5 Min Read

We ask Macadamian President, Dinesh Kandanchatha, to offer his thoughts on the role of technology in healthcare, and whether it can help us tackle our mental health challenges.

The world became remote and socially distant amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology has allowed us to remain in touch with each other during this time. It’s allowed us to work and learn from home. It’s given us access to healthcare from the comfort of the living room couch.

But as Macadamian President Dinesh Kandanchatha notes, an overuse of technology can take a toll on our mental health.

In this Q&A, Kandanchatha offers insights on the importance of balancing screen time with outdoor time, how technology is making healthcare more accessible, and how he looks out for his own mental health.

Macadamian: The U.S. Census Bureau reported that more than 42% of people surveyed in December 2020 faced symptoms of anxiety or depression. This was an increase from 11% the year prior. There’s a sense of fear and isolation brought on by the pandemic. How is technology helping us tackle this?

Kandanchatha: Technology is a double edged sword. On one side it gives us access to information in real time, the ability to interact on Zoom, and entertainment to distract us while in lockdown. On the other hand, it has glued us to our screens, reduced our physical activity, and amplified our fears. I have started to think very carefully about technology as a panacea to solve what are ultimately human issues. We have a need for physical connection, a need for diversity, and also a need to “turn off”. I think balancing what are normal human activities such as exercise, meeting others outside, telling stories, reading books, mindfulness and meditation are just as important as our technical solutions.

Macadamian: An overuse of technology has been shown to contribute to health conditions like depression. With technology being the culprit for some mental health issues, can it also be the cure?

Kandanchatha: Like many things, it’s all about how much and when. Technology can greatly influence and enhance short term problems, for example in telemedicine, or school from home. But in the long-term context it’s important to recognize technology can’t replace the interactions that give our life meaning. All technology is best used as an augment or amplification. It’s why we believe human-centered design is so important.

Macadamian: How is telehealth improving access to mental healthcare?

Kandanchatha: Telehealth has in many ways helped destigmatize mental health. It is ok to ask for help, and it feels safer when you do so from your home. We are all experiencing a shock to our lives that requires us to build our resilience. Telehealth solutions are supporting us on that journey.

Macadamian: What role do health apps play in supporting mental health?

Kandanchatha: Health apps have given us a level of visibility and control over our physical and mental condition in ways that we haven’t experienced before. Today I can see how I am sleeping, I can do an inventory on my stress levels, I can track my activity. All of these inputs help me maintain a healthy existence, which is critical for our mental health. With COVID-19, we have shined a big light on our mental condition and its influence on our health and quality of life. This is amazing and I am excited to see how we can bring resilience to our society through these apps to prevent illness later.

Macadamian: We’re also seeing challenges faced by those who are juggling working from home while taking care of their kids, who are also home due to online learning. What role does technology play in supporting the mental health of employees today?

Kandanchatha: Technology has allowed many of us to work and learn from home. But we haven’t been able to find the boundaries yet. As a result many are struggling to turn off, we seem to be working or studying 24/7 versus how it used to be. There are no breaks, just the endless repetition of work and sleep. I think it falls on individuals to try to build in breaks, and companies to build in mechanisms for people to turn off their devices, or try to find less screen intensive solutions to productivity.

Macadamian: Overuse of smartphones has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teens. But we’re also depending on our smartphones to help us tackle issues of anxiety and depression, often through apps that get us to meditate, or exercise. How do we reconcile the pros and cons of smartphones?

Kandanchatha: Smartphones are here to stay, and their positive contributions far outweigh the challenges. Like any innovation, there will be unintended consequences and it’s up to individuals and families to educate themselves and their teens on using that technology. You wouldn’t let your 17-year-old drive a car without a lot of coaching and support; smartphones should be no different. The challenge is that we don’t have the experience yet on what “best practice” looks like. More research is needed and a collective effort to understand how to balance the benefits of technology with the inevitable challenges.

Macadamian: We’re seeing record investments in mental health technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. How big of a role will technology play in tackling mental health challenges in the future?

Kandanchatha: I think mental health is just health. For too long we have separated mental and physical health. It is kind of pointless. Our health depends on both. Agency is a big part of what these kinds of applications provide. With most health applications the user gains agency over their health, and are provided tools to influence positively their condition. This is key to gaining an internal locus of control on your life. This has been proven over and over to be a determining factor in high quality of life and low stress.

Macadamian: How are you looking out for your mental health amid the pandemic?

Kandanchatha: One word: resiliency. I am trying to be more resilient. Recognize that what is in my control are my reactions and expectations. The other thing COVID-19 has allowed me to do is take a “time out” from how I was running my life and ask, “is this the best way to do it?” It is hard to rethink this half way through. But the past year in many ways was a gift to reflect internally and externally.

 

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