Real-World Technology Use Among People With Mental Illnesses: Qualitative Study

JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Nov 23;5(4):e10652. doi: 10.2196/10652.


Background: There is growing interest in using technology-based tools to support mental health recovery. Yet, despite evidence suggesting widespread access to technology among people with mental illnesses, interest in using technology to support mental health, and effectiveness of technology-based tools developed by researchers, such tools have not been widely adopted within mental health settings. Little is currently known about how mental health consumers are using technology to address mental health needs in real-world settings outside of controlled research studies.

Objective: This qualitative study examined current practices and orientations toward technology among consumers in 3 mental health settings in the United States.

Methods: Ethnographic observations and semistructured interviews were conducted. Observations focused on if and how technology was salient within the setting and documented relevant behaviors, interactions, and dialogue in fieldnotes. Ethnographic data informed the development of a semistructured interview that inquired into technology use and interest among consumers (n=15) in a community mental health setting. Fieldnotes and interview transcripts were reviewed and coded by multiple researchers. Key concepts and patterns identified were refined by the research team to develop the main findings.

Results: Ownership of technology, although common, was not ubiquitous and was varied across the sites. Participants had varying levels of awareness regarding the key capabilities of modern technologies. Participants used technology for many purposes, but there was limited evidence of technology use to support mental health. Technology-based tools specific to mental health were not routinely used, although some participants found widely available mobile apps to be helpful in recovery.

Conclusions: Qualitative findings suggest that many, but not all, clients will be interested in using technology to support mental health needs. The variability in type and quality of technology owned by participants suggests the need to design for a range of functionality in the development of mental health tools. Findings also suggest thinking broadly about using existing platforms and widely available tools to support consumers in mental health recovery.

Keywords: mental health; mobile phone; qualitative research; technology.