I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of technology in solving social problems. As the co-founder and executive director of a mental health non-profit, I’ve become increasingly immersed in the social entrepreneurship community, which has introduced me to some fascinating people, inspiring leaders, and important ways to think about non-profit sustainability, impact and scale. I also spent the last three years in Silicon Valley. Both of these communities have been formative for me, but they can both be myopic in their view that technology can solve all problems.
This is especially true in the mental health field. Mental health technology is a booming new space; there are thousands of mental health apps in the ITunes and Android App stores, and the number is growing everyday. And while there are benefits to this technology (convenience, anonymity, access for more people at a lower cost), there are also reasons for caution. There are no standards for evaluating the effectiveness of these apps, and many programs oversell their benefits. In fact, maintaining client engagement with many of these apps has been a challenge, with usage dwindling rapidly over the first few months. But unbridled techno-optimists tend to ignore these drawbacks, some now celebrating the idea that robots can replace humans as therapists.
In the past few months, I’ve been a finalist in two social entrepreneurship pitch competitions. I lost both of them, and like any good social entrepreneur, I contacted all the judges for feedback. What could I do better next time – delivery, framing of the problem, was something unclear? Their response was interesting. “No, your pitch was great. But there wasn’t enough technology.”
…That’s because we’re not a tech company. And we shouldn’t be! We work to help people with eating disorders, a mental health issue with complex psychological, neurobiological, cultural and genetic underpinnings; no app will ever be “the solution.”
Technology can be an important tool to help us amplify the human relationships at the core of our work. For a new peer support program, we’re utilizing the leading app in the space to connect our beneficiaries, have developed a comprehensive online training program for our peer mentors that can we accessed anywhere in the world, and are offering online mentorship (meetings via skype) in addition to in person meetings.
But at the end of the day, the human relationships are still central. Our peer mentors build relationships with those in the mental anguish of an eating disorder and act as role models, sharing their own stories of how they emerged from the darkness of an eating disorder, and helping their mentees build a life outside of their eating disorder worth living. It’s all about the relationship.
There is a broader message here too. In a world obsessed with technology, we don’t often stop to think about how tech might detract from our human relationships, contributing to less intimacy and vulnerability. While adolescents and teens of past generations used to hang out at one another’s houses after school, today they are much more likely to go home alone and “plug in” to their social worlds. Family cars rides used to be a place for reflection and conversation, but have now become a time to catch up on emails and respond to texts. Always feeling pressed for time, we choose to shoot a text to our friend instead of calling to check in. But a “how are you” via text is very different from a “how are you” over the phone. We can filter and present a perfectly curated version of ourselves, but what are we losing?
Decades of social science research have shown
that having strong social connections is fundamental to human happiness. And weaker social interactions with a large
number of changing people leads to less happiness and fulfillment. In our quest
to scale mental health solutions rapidly, let’s not forget what really matters. There are problems
that still require good old fashioned elbow grease, and their solutions often
help bolster society and reinforce our humanity. We shouldn’t be trying to
disrupt the things that make us uniquely human.