Is your phone bad for your mental health?

Dr Bridi O’Dea, researcher at The Black Dog Institute shares new game changing ways to support people with mental health

LCW: Firstly congratulations on winning your award, we understand it is a peer based award, how did it come about?

B: The Tall Poppy Campaign was created in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) to recognise and celebrate young Australians scientists who have a commitment to research excellence and community engagement.  The awards are given based on a peer-nomination, in most cases, by a senior scientist who has recognised your efforts. I was lucky enough to have received a nomination by Professor Helen Christensen, the Director and Chief Scientist here at the Black Dog Institute

LCW: In your TedXYouth talk you share some sobering statistics:

– 18 – 25 year olds check their phones 56 times a day

– 8 people everyday commit suicide and another 20 others make an attempt 

– at any given time 4% of Australians feel their life is not worth living

 As an e mental health researcher what is your goal in using the humble mobile phone and social networks  to help reduce these statistics?

B: In Australian, one in five people will experience a mental health problem, yet only one in three seek help. There are significant barriers to seeking help, with access, stigma, and lack of knowledge some of them. Here at the Black Dog Institute, I am working alongside a team of bright scientists to investigate how we can use ubiquitous devices, such as mobile phones and social media, to identify those in need of mental health assistance, and deliver care. Our aim is to increase Australian’s access to care and improve overall quality of life.  

LCW: Can you share with us a little about Digital Dog and the place of technology to help reduce stress, lower depression and lower suicide rates

B: Digital Dog is a research program led by Professor Helen Christensen as part of the esteemed John Cade Fellowship. Digital Dog is a series of innovative and novel research projects that aims to improve mental health through technology. In particular, we utilise internet technology and wearable devices to help “detect” when someone is stressed, depressed, or feeling suicidal and then “deliver” evidence-based care in a timely manner. Ultimately, we wish to lower suicide rates and increase access to care by coordinating our approach with other research groups and programs such as LifeSpan – Australia’s largest suicide prevention trial developed by Black Dog Institute researchers – and the Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

LCW: Love it or hate it, social media is here to stay. Your PhD examined the relationship between social networking sites and emotional wellbeing in early adolescents. How are you using social media to break down the stigmas surrounding mental health issues ? 

B: As part of Digital Dog, we have been investigating the ways in which social media can be used to break down stigma, and increase access to care, in particular for suicide. We have conducted a series of studies looking at the sharing of suicidal content on Twitter. We have analysed people’s responses to this type of content, and have found that some response are indeed unhelpful, judgemental, and uncaring. We are now trying to understand how this can be used to design and deliver effective stigma reduction campaigns in real time and at scale.

LCW: Your  current research areas include adolescent depression and anxiety, e-health interventions for mental health, and harnessing social media for suicide prevention. At Let’s Connect Women we believe that together we can have a strong voice to effect change – we would love to know how you think we can make simple changes in our lives to breakdown the barriers of stigma and support those with mental health issues?

B: As we know, 54 percent of people won’t seek professional help for a mental health issue in the first instance. This means that family and friends play a key role in supporting people through a tough time. Family and friends are often the first to recognise when someone may not be doing well or can be well placed to discuss sensitive things. As such, it is highly encouraged to talk to those in your social network about their mental health, and when it is appropriate, suggest seeking professional care. Also, there are plenty of myths surrounding mental illness. It is important to constantly emphasise that mental illnesses are treatable, they are very common, and do not make you weak or different. With these simple things in mind, we can all make a difference in combatting mental illness.

LCW: What do you love most about working with The Black Dog Institute?

B: I have been working here for almost five years and I am absolutely loving my time here. The Institute and its leadership have an inspiring vision and a genuine commitment to decreasing the impacts of mental illness. The scientific method underpins all the work that we do which means the Australian public can be confident that we are committed to providing treatment and prevention programs that work. And not to mention, everybody who works here is fiercely united by a common goal and are very caring people!

LCW: Whats next for Dr Bridi O’Dea?

B: Together with my other colleagues, I am looking at the ways we can integrate digital mental healthcare with face-to-face support to not only treat mental illness but also prevent it. I am particularly passionate about school-based care as most mental health problems emerge in the teenage years. Ultimately, I would like to see a time when all young people can access mental healthcare in a timely, effective, and engaging way. I believe my work here at the Institute is helping to achieve this.

Claudia Neal-Shaw