OCTOBER 16-18, 2019



October 16-18, 2019 | Boston, MA

Using Technology to Support Mental Health

Ashley Clayton, MA, Director of Evaluation, Center for Wellbeing of Women and Mothers in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine

Despite being a researcher by profession and a collector of information by disposition, if you had asked me three years ago to utilize technology to help me track and manage my mental health, I would have quickly said: “No thank you.” But these days, I use technology daily to track and manage my mental health. So, what changed? Two things.

First, I experienced a severe depressive episode from which I was uncertain if I would recover. During the most acute phase of my depression, I had difficulty getting my doctors to appreciate how serious my illness was, so I began creating excel sheets tracking my symptoms using standardized depression measures to show the relationship between my treatment schedule and my mood. I used this data to help orient me when discussing my treatment plan with my care providers. We found a plan that worked and luckily I found my way to the dappled side of the mountain, life mostly in-tact. I continued tracking my depressive symptoms even after we’d established a solid plan, mostly because my life now included a persistent fear of relapse. Tracking my symptoms helped me feel a little more in control of my illness.

No longer in crisis, I realized I was already using technology to track and manage my mental health in ways I hadn’t before. I use (and continue to use) a wide variety of apps that support healthy behaviors, none of which are specific to mental health but all of which track things that are important for my mental health. For example, I rely on my Apple Watch Activity function to help me achieve exercise goals (I love closing those rings!), and I use another app to monitor my sleep. These particular apps track two of the most impactful behaviors on my mental health, and I just needed to widen my understanding of technology as a tool for supporting mental health. Although tracking my depressive symptoms has some utility, tracking and monitoring behaviors that support my health have become much more important and have yielded important insights and patterns. Through tracking my sleep, I have realized I tend to round up when estimating how many hours I slept (e.g., saying I slept 8 hours when I only slept 7 hours and 45 minutes), but I have learned those 15 minutes are critical to my health. If I have a week with more than two days where I don’t quite hit that 8-hour mark, you can bet my mood starts to decline.

Second, I found PatientsLikeMe. PatientsLikeMe has provided me with an invaluable resource – something I can’t find in academic journals – a space for being honest about what living with a chronic illness is like, and the impact treatments have on individuals (which vary greatly). Scientific articles publish averages and medians, making it impossible to understand the experiences of the individual. Living with depression, I’ve tried numerous treatments, some of which are relatively common and some of which are experimental or have a serious side effect profile. In those instances, I want to connect with others who have had those treatments and understand the particular experience to help me make an informed decision. Accessing patient treatment reviews helped me feel safer and better able to make difficult treatment decisions. Sharing my health data provides me with a sense of giving back – if my treatment reviews or information can help one person feel a little more at ease in making a decision, it makes the experience of having suffered a serious depression a little more tolerable.

There are many ways to use technology to monitor health and support healthy behaviors. From social connection to information sharing to measuring and monitoring, I’ve piecemealed a suite of tools that work well for me, most of which are not mental-health-specific. After all, the point of all these efforts is to live the best life I can, and while mental health symptom management is a critical component, it’s not the whole picture.

Ashley Clayton, MA, is the Director of Evaluation at the Center for Wellbeing of Women and Mothers in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine where her research focuses on the intersection of poverty and mental health. She is a member of PatientsLikeMe’s 2019 Team of Advisors where she advocates for patients and collaborates with the company on new products and research into health and disease. She is a lover of stories, science, and all things quiet.


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