Take a moment and think — really think — about how many hours a day you spend on your smartphone. Now, ask yourself how you feel when your latest social media post gets several “likes” in a row, or when a friend texts you out of the blue. What about the feeling you get from idly scrolling through your social media feeds, looking into other people’s lives and silently comparing yours to theirs?

Studies show while the highs of smartphone usage can lead to addiction, the lows could trigger behavioral health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Daisy Giddings, lead cliniciation at the Center for Human Development in La Grande, said she has witnessed evidence of these lows.

“I have seen cellphones, Facebook and Instagram contribute to challenges with self-esteem and identity in some of my clients,” she said. “Some of the things I plan with clients is taking those apps off of their phones to remove access as much as they can.”

As for the highs, Aaron Grigg, CHD’s mental health director, said because social media usage triggers the rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and satisfaction as part of the brain’s reward system, people are likely to become dependent on their smartphones for happiness.

“There is an addictive nature to smartphones, especially around social media, gaming and even texting just because of the instant gratification,” he said. “Your life gets enveloped by the need to get liked online. It becomes a bit of an addiction.”

A recent study published to BMC Psychiatry, an online journal focusing on the prevention, diagnosis and management of psychiatric disorders, analyzes the link between smartphone usage and behavioral health, claiming people with an addiction to their smartphones are more likely to have behavioral health issues, and vice versa.

“It is speculated that not only addiction to smartphone usage can affect one’s mental and behavioral status, but also that those with mood disorders are more likely to become addicted to using their smartphones,” the study states.

The study recommends depression-vulnerable demographics such as young adults limit their smartphone use because “it was reported that high levels of smartphone addiction were correlated with low self-esteem, loneliness, depression and shyness.”

Although technology is often cited as a catalyst for increased behavioral health issues, recent innovations with telecommunication and smartphone apps have proved it can also be a tool for providing behavioral health assistance to those in need.

In December 2018, Grigg launched a pilot telebehavioral health program at CHD from funds acquired through a grant from Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc. The program offers remote counselling through Mend, a HIPAA compliant, confidential telemedicine platform, so clients can speak with their counselors from the comfort of their own homes. Grigg said 20 returning clients have already opted into the telecommunication program, and first-time clients will likely be able to enroll in February. According to him, the age of the clients is often a factor in whether or not they will be satisfied with the program.

“It’s not going to work for everybody,” Grigg said. “Some people still really need to meet face-to-face, but for teens and young adults, it’s a great fit because they’re already accustomed to having conversations (online).”

Grigg said the program could be especially beneficial to those who might not otherwise seek help.

“I think for some, we might be able to break down barriers to receiving behavioral health services,” he said.

Part of the aversion to seeking out counseling in smaller communities, according to Grigg, is the high chance of running into your counselor in public. With CHD’s telebehavioral health program, however, that possibility vanishes as the counselors who offer services via telecommunication do not live in the Union County area — in fact, they could be located anywhere.

Another bonus for rural populations is the accessibility of the program — as long as clients have internet access, they can contact their counselors.

“CHD provides services for the entire county, so you’re looking at outlying areas like Elgin, Union and North Powder that may make it harder for people to get in here for services,” said Grigg. “These are individuals who have small children, they’re sick, they have a hard time getting here on their breaks from work. We’ve even had individuals where if the weather was bad, they couldn’t come in. We may still be able to provide the same services through telemedicine.”

Because the program is only in its beginning phase, Grigg said CHD isn’t going to focus on public awareness until “the bugs” are fixed.

“It is a pilot project and we’re still working out the kinks, but so far from what we’ve seen, clients love it,” he said.

Grigg hopes to eventually expand CHD’s current telecommunication model with apps that help clients record their behavioral health through biotracking, or monitoring a smartphone user’s behavior online to determine their mental health state.

“There are some (behavioral health) apps (that) you can let your counselor have access to, and they can track you on a regular basis to see how you’re doing — like a check-in,” said Grigg. “That’s one of the areas that I think in the future we might be looking at, but I really want to get this telebehavioral health program going before we start looking at other services.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer

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