How the Digital World is Helping Our Mental Health

Smartphones, the search for serenity, and texting in a crisis.

Posted Feb 02, 2015

We all know the familiar description of our connected age. Pico Iyer paints an accurate picture of how many of us feel in his book The Art of Stillness: “[w]e’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off. [O]ur bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call.” Although it's incredibly important to take seriously the toll that our connected world can take on our mental health, what about the upside of our connected world? It seems we rarely focus on how our social media and connectedness is also being used for the good of our mental health.  

The feeling of being an emergency room doctor always on-call, only has to dominate our lives as much as we let it and the key to unlocking all of the great things our smartphones and our computers hold is to be smart with our tools, to develop what my co-author Saj-nicole Joni and I call our connectional intelligence in our new book Get Big Things Done. Connectional intelligence is the ability to combine our knowledge, ambition and our human capital, forging new connections to create unprecedented meaning and value. Although some think the solution is go back to pre-digital days or abandon our smartphones altogether, many innovators are finding solutions by leveraging our connected world to actually promote mental health.

Take the pocket guru apps like Headspace, designed by its found Andy Puddicombe, once a Buddhist monk, to bring meditation to the masses. As Puddicombe told the Telegraph, its not about the glamour of having a successful tech business but “‘it’s a social mission, to help create a healthier, happier world.’” It’s designed as a personal trainer for the mind and has either series of meditations or “singles.” They have different topics like relationship or work so you can personalize it if you need a mental health boost in a specific area of your life.

There are also all the new health-supporting apps that allow you to more accurately know yourself and your moods through data collection. Moodscope is an app where you track your moods on a daily basis and then can look at your progress over time. You can write notes so you get to know what actually causes your moods. If you want you can also share your results with a friend for support. There are many more data-driven apps and there are meetups and conferences if you want to join up with others who are part of the Quantified Self movement. The aim of the Quanitified Self Labs is to “help people get meaning out of their personal data.” This is the perfect example of connectional intelligence; these apps cut through the noise of social media and get us to all of the meaning that can be found if we are smart about how we use it.

Besides using technology to track our individual moods, is using anonymous data from their Crisis Text Line to fuel Crisis Trends, a platform of data to “empower journalists, researchers, and citizens to understand the crises American teens face so we can work together to prevent future crises from happening.” The seeds for’s Crisis Text Line started when DoSomething CEO Nancy Lublin noticed that teens weren’t just reading the texts the organization sent, they were texting back, sometimes about the troubles in their own lives. Some messages were about sexual assault, bullying or other crisis and Lublin realized that DoSomething, a non-profit that promotes community action in young people, was not equipped to handle the severity of the mental health issues. DoSomething partnered with six crisis centers across the country that offered expert counseling on the issues most troubling to adolescents and launched Crisis Text Line. In the first six months after the 2013 launch, Crisis Text Line exchanged nearly a million texts with 9,000 teenagers.

With all of this information being recorded through texts, Lublin also realized that they had an overwhelming amount of specific real-time data about teen mental health.  In August they launched Crisis Trends, that allows us to answer questions probably never thought imaginable like, What time of day do most teens seek help about depression, or what’s the #1 crises for teens in your state? This data can help to shape more holistic, structural responses to mental health crises and have support be available when teens actually need it.  

Let’s ask more of ourselves and our technology. Andy Puddicombe asked the non-intuitive question: How can my smartphone actually add more quiet to my life. How could these amazing tools we have contribute more to my serenity, rather than steal it? We can turn the common notions upside-down and improve health in ways we never could before if we use technology in the right way.

Erica Dhawan is the co-author of the new book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence by Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole Joni. As CEO of Cotential  she consults with leaders and organizations to harness the power of connectional intelligence.  Learn more at and follow her on Twitter.

About the Author

Erica Dhawan

Erica Dhawan is the co-author of the new book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence and CEO of Cotential, a global consultancy.

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