Magdalena Ratajczyk - psychoterapeuta, pedagog

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Will wellbeing apps replace psychotherapy?

Increasingly, I see employee benefits being offered in the form of apps designed to improve employees’ mental wellbeing. However laudable the idea, nothing in business is done for free. This is a business, after all, and the principle of business is to make money.

What are wellbeing apps? Broadly speaking, they are apps that are designed to monitor our wellbeing and help us improve it. Rigorously, I divide them into those for standalone use and those that involve some form of remote psychological or psychotherapeutic intervention. In this article I will look at the latter.

Wellbeing apps have understandably become popular as a result of pandemics, recent armed conflicts and high inflation. Why is this? It is natural that these are situations that encourage an increase in anxiety to levels that were unknown until recently. The idea of using the Internet to ask for help also seems more natural. After all, during the lockdown we practised transferring almost all of reality to the virtual world.

So why are big companies interested in wellbeing apps? As usual, if you don’t know what it’s about, it’s about money. Firstly, mental wellbeing services are one of the fastest growing businesses at the moment. Demand is so high that not only apps, but also podcasts or YouTube channels dedicated to mental health are mushrooming. Secondly, there is the money involved in the increasing mental health problems of employees. These, in turn, lead to reduced effectiveness, burnout, sick leave or, ultimately, resignation. And that comes at a massive cost. Mental health apps appear to be the ideal solution - they are designed to prevent or alleviate problems quickly and efficiently. What’s more, they don’t require a lot of time or even leaving the house… or the office. There is a reason they say “time is money”. It is true that mental health is worth taking care of, and we are hearing more and more about it from all sides. It is also true that there are a lot of problems and society is busy, so it should be easier to get help, not harder. Is a wellbeing app the right form of help?

Psychological help in the form of chat, for example, is a very specific form of help with difficulties. It is a more interventionist form of help, that is, one that enables you to survive for a while in that particular moment of crisis. It is certainly not psychotherapy. It is the beginning of a journey rather than a long-term solution to a problem. It is worth remembering this. It is great that you can get help like this. Maybe it’s easier to write something than to tell the other person (see: internet hecklers). It also gives you the feeling that you’re solving a problem at a low cost in terms of time and money. The disadvantage is the lack of personal contact with the other person, reading their tone of voice, establishing a relationship, which is the basis of effective psychotherapy. Failure to continue working on the difficulties can make them worse. A Wellbeing Application is not a substitute for psychotherapy, but it can replace ad hoc help.

Interestingly, in psychotherapy, people who would benefit most from contact with another person, such as anxious people, tend to want to use some form of online help. For such people, wellbeing apps may be a paradise that does not force them to confront their difficulties, but at the same time gives them the feeling that they are working on the problem. However, without this confrontation, there is unlikely to be any improvement. If this were the case, online support groups and self-help books would suffice.

We are social creatures and what heals us and helps us with many mental difficulties is a relationship with another person, time together, sharing thoughts, feelings, energy, physical contact. Anyone who has lived alone for at least some time during the pandemic knows that it is difficult to replace time with a loved one with an online meeting. It depends, of course, on the nature of the difficulty. In some cases, a sticking plaster and a kind word are not enough. You need to see a qualified doctor or, in this case, a psychotherapist. Relying only on internet advice is like visiting a foreign country via Google Earth instead of in person. You seem to have seen everything and know the place already, but there is a difference, isn’t there?