Let's talk about mental health and digital

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

Let’s talk about mental health.

It’s hard to break away from the old stigmas circling around these two words. The outdated mores, historical undertones and feelings of shame associated with them seem to be written into the DNA of our society.

We have made strides in opening up the discussion in recent years. But in the context of the pace of technological change, we don’t have time to dally anymore.

It’s past time to own up to the reality of it, and more importantly, to understand how it’s going to underpin our lives and societies to come.

Mental health, defined by the World Health Organization, is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Put this definition to work in the context of a pandemic and what do you get?

A year of lockdown has established new patterns of behaviour

One of the devastating tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the mental health of all age groups across all regions of the world.

How and where you work, manage unemployment, deal with finances, access education, socialise, and function as families and individuals, have all been put in a spin cycle. Life as we knew it has disappeared – and will likely never go back to the way it was.

The intermittent and interminable lockdowns have surfaced our mental health capacities, and like other impacts of COVID, have emphasised existing weaknesses and inequalities in how people and communities can cope, adapt and bounce back.

Hypersensitivity about disease infection and prevention will have an unconscious impact on social behaviour and relationships in the years to come. Personality types, group behaviour traits and norms have suddenly been subjected to an environment that does not enable the usual ebbs and flows of expression or development; whether you are gregarious or introverted, a leader or a follower.

A year of lockdown has established new patterns of behaviour inside homes, public spaces, schools and work, which we are yet to fully comprehend, let alone understand how to manage their consequences.

We don’t really know the short to long-term impact on our mental health, individually and collectively, especially if we take the WHO definition seriously.

Lockdowns have been a fertile ground for data collection

Give a thought to the generation growing up in these times. Teenagers are forming their personalities – a year under lockdown measures is a long time, and the implications for their future resilience and that of wider society as a result might have wider ramifications which bear reflection by policymakers.

EU recovery has been communicated in structural terms: re-wiring economies to be more financially resilient and ensuring that the twin structural forces of digital and climate change are embedded deeper therein. Yet the economic hit that societies are facing, in terms of high unemployment and access to good quality public services, whilst coping with the hazards of a fast-changing climate and the onslaught of unfettered digitalisation, is likely to compound the poor mental health of communities as they emerge from this crisis.

Mental health will be as much of a driver of our recovery as the structural forces that underpin our societies.

But what about digitalisation as a driver for recovery – and how does it fit into this discussion?

It has become an essential life, work and education support system in COVID times. And lockdowns have been a fertile ground for data collection. Society is now data. In a digital world, everything we do is data, and everything in our lives is a useful piece of this new currency.

Whilst the EU has made policy announcements to curb the excesses of big tech and safeguard personal freedoms and rights, little thought has been given to the relationship between our mental health and big data.

Dealing with mental health will likely become a big money spinner

The data collected throughout the past 12 months is gold dust and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is covertly wrapping itself around our lives quietly, surely and insidiously. This information will spawn a generation of recovery applications, commercialising mental health and seeding business opportunities on a level hitherto unknown. Dealing with mental health will likely become a big money spinner.

This is aside from the impact of AI on people across all aspects of day-to-day life from voting, job hunting, accessing primary health care, nudging our behaviour through bespoke advertising; google searches and social media, whilst appearing harmless, are data crunchers extraordinaire. Seemingly innocuous, helpful recommendations and suggestions are billions of subtle nudges for our ‘likes’.

The algorithms developed to understand predicative patterns of behaviour and develop insights into nudging our behaviour will be vast. Unfettered, AI is the ultimate sophisticated racial profiling tool and boon for extreme beliefs, religious or otherwise, preying on the mental health of unsuspecting consumers.

It has the potential of becoming a menacing 21st century god. Unchecked it will redesign existing inequalities, but carefully designed and regulated, its positive potential is unimaginable.

The time to address and harness the power of digital to be a force for good, rather than bad, is now. We need a whole of society and economy approach to governing and regulating AI.

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