Julie HanksThanks to the SXSW Interactive conference here in Austin, TX, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the top online voices in mental health education, licensed therapist Julie Hanks, LCSW. Julie participated on an intriguing panel called Online Therapy … Naked?, where she discussed the intersection of technology and serving mental health patients.

While in town, I asked Julie to share her thoughts on a few questions about how technology, particularly social media, is changing the landscape of mental health practice and patient participation:

As a licensed therapist, what are your thoughts about mental health patients entering the more public forums of conversation, especially through social media?

Common for mental health patients is a sense of isolation and being alone in their struggles. Social media and other online forums provide amazing opportunities for patients get support and connect with others who are experiencing similar mental health challenges. Developing a supportive online community can act as a way help to normalize their feelings, and provide helpful information, advice and advocacy. There can be amazing therapeutic benefits in conversing with other patients who have “been there.” Social media enables patients to immediately share information that is helpful to them with others, which is empowering. Feeling empowered is good for mental health.

We want our suffering and our experiences to matter. In my life and clinical practice, I’ve seen many clients express a desire to educate and advocate and provide hope for others who share their struggles:

  • A young adult woman recovering from eating disorders seeks out opportunities to speak to teens about her experience and promote healthy body image.
  • A mother with a severely mentally ill child joins the local National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) to offer education other families impacted by mental illness.
  • A woman with two children who have autism reaches out to offer child care to a new neighbor who has a child with autism.

Are you observing any shifts in the ways mental health practitioners and patients interact online?

While therapists still need to guard against development of dual relationships (relationships outside of the therapy office) with their specific clients, I’m seeing a shift in the way mental health practitioners and patients interact online in terms of sharing educational information. An increasing number of therapists and patients are blogging about mental health. While most therapists are sharing professional opinions as experts, the first-person experiences of mental health patient bloggers allows for another kind of expert, with the sharing of information and offering patients an unprecedented voice.

Let’s be BOLD! Tell us what you think your industry will look like in 10 years.

While I think that face-to-face interaction will never be replaced by digital interaction, I think that in 10 years we will be doing a lot more interaction online between providers and patients, especially on mobile devices.

It is astounding to me that in 2012 many mental health therapists don’t have websites. I predict that it will be impossible to have a thriving mental health practice without a website and a strong online professional presence. There is a growing mentality among the public that if I can’t find you on Google, you don’t exist. The number one online referral source to my Wasatch Family Therapy website is … Google. And the number 2 referral source is Facebook! A strong online presence and effective social media use is the only way I’ve been able to build a solo private practice from one to 12 therapists.

In 10 years I hope mental health graduate training programs will have business and marketing classes that include technology education, like how to build an online presence, how to understand SEO, what makes an effective practice website, and how to build a Twitter following. Social workers, in particular, are known for their grass roots efforts. Social media allows for the largest grass roots advocacy and education we’ve ever seen. With the push of a button one person can send a compelling message or call-to-action to millions.

I can’t even comprehend the technological advances we will see and their impact on mental health therapy. My guess is that computer simulated interactive worlds, like Second Life, will be used increasingly used for therapeutic purposes, therapist client interactions, group therapy, exposure therapy, and role playing real life situations. The American Psychological Association’s current issue of The Monitor explores virtual environments and their promising application to the field of psychology. I think there is amazing potential to merge gaming and mental health treatment, particularly with children and adolescents.

In addition, the potential for helpful mental health mobile apps is astounding. How amazing would it be to have apps that give feedback to couples when they start emotionally escalating in conversations on what to do to intervene before the fight gets heated. What about an app where mental health providers can type a daily affirmation, a patient homework reminder, or other message to specific clients sent in-between sessions as added support service. If there are any developers out there who want to collaborate, please let me know!

To learn more about Julie Hanks, here are some of the ways you can follow her: