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Digital technology has become ubiquitous in almost every aspect of modern life – in fact technology and social media in particular, is often blamed for causing or exacerbating mental health issues.

However, in recent years, the widespread use of personal digital devices—smartphones, fitness trackers, tablets, and so on – has enabled mental health providers to shift to digital or virtual formats while preserving the anonymity of participant’s personal data. This data, can be hugely valuable to health practitioners and others who are invested in using data to improve both access to, and quality of care.

Anonymous Pandas

Anonymity is key to so many health-support programmes, as many people are reluctant to publicly share their personal challenges – whether they’re searching for weight loss advice or seeking professional counselling.

At the same time, for many people across the country, mental health support is considered to be inaccessible or too expensive. In fact, while it’s estimated that a third of all people will at one time or another experience one of the diverse mental health issues during their lifetimes, many of these individuals don’t have the luxury of time, money, medical aid, or even transport to find a professional with whom to discuss their anxieties or feelings of depression. This makes the digital format for care a welcome alternative solution.

For anyone who feels too afraid or stigmatised, or for whom mental health care and support are simply not available or affordable, the free-to-download digital Panda App has been designed to provide them with easy access to mental health information, community support and expert help (available on app stores by searching “Join Panda”). This app provides unique oversight of how data can be used to address mental health concerns.

Allan Sweidan, a clinical psychologist who previously headed up the Akeso Group of Psychiatric Hospitals and who is co-founder of Panda, explains “it is the anonymous analysis of data that enables professionals to tailor services appropriate to each individual, and to create content which is relevant to changing needs, concerns and issues”.

Our Most Prominent Health Concerns

Panda co-founder Alon Lits, former GM and Director of Uber in sub-Saharan Africa, says: “Our use of data and insights enables us to easily adapt and change our support levels, content within the app and other features as the requests change.” Currently, over the last month, these are the top ten keywords (in order of frequency) listed as areas of interest or concern for Panda users:

  1. Anxiety;
  2. Depression;
  3. Work and financial stress;
  4. Sleep deprivation;
  5. Mindfulness;
  6. Exam stress;
  7. Relationship Issues;
  8. Productivity;
  9. Addiction (alcohol, sex, gambling, gaming);
  10. Alternative approaches to healing”

Lits adds, “Our supportive ‘Forest’ feature enables participants to engage via live sessions among a community of other app users who may be facing similar challenges.  And through access to experts – who also participate in the Forest – people are able to gain a better understanding of mental health-related topics”.

SA Specific Issues

A rare feature of the app is that users can also create and run their own Forest sessions based on their very personal needs and interests. The data generated through analysing these organically created sessions illuminates and provides insights into our unique needs as a country.

Some topics created by users of the Join Panda app this month included:

•             Navigating ‘Black Tax’

•             Support for parents who are long term caregivers to children with special needs

•             Domestic violence – The journey

•             Dealing with domestic violence when kids are involved

•             How to get through trauma

•             LGBTQI+ challenges

Data Sets

Panda users can also create their own data set. By completing screening assessments, they are provided with insights about how they might be faring at a particular point in time. Through the app’s gamified approach, users can track their (hopefully) improving screening scores, sessions attended and other activities. In future, this data may be used to assist users in understanding where they need the most support, and support programmes or other interventions may be recommended. This will make the overall mental health care system much easier to navigate, as users will be recommended the right intervention at the right time based on evidence-based screening tools. Over time, through feedback loops with users and by analysing data, recommendations will become much more accurate and useful to both mental health users and providers of care.

This coming together of peers, experts and the analysis of anonymised data promises to enable a whole new way of accessing the care and resources that many South Africans may need at some point.