Treating negative affects among young people: the emerging technological landscape of therapeutic encounters

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


This project examines the urgent public concern surrounding young people's mental health. It takes a 'critical-neuro geography' approach (Pykett, 2017), to investigate how the technological promise of neuroscience is advanced through young people's 'therapeutic encounters' with eMental health services and apps that attempt to record, moderate and manage negative affect (depression, anxiety and stress). Mental health apps have emerged as one potential solution particularly suited to young people, but the effect of these technologies remains to be assessed (Lupton, 2012; Fullagar et al., 2017). The research will advance understanding of what kind of mental health services and policies should be the focus of future development for young people aged 16-25 - foregrounding a research agenda which is informed by developments in neuroscience, technology and cultural-geographical accounts of emotional experience.

I will work in collaboration with The Children's Society's 'Pause' mental health drop-in service for young people in Birmingham. I will gain practical insight from the frontline of city-based mental health services for young people, undertaking research into young people's relationships with app-based mental health technologies. The research will include the perspectives of young people with lived experience of mental ill-health, and the views of practitioners.

I will conduct textual and discursive analysis of eMental Health and mood monitoring apps/websites based on a critical neuro-geography framework. A relational geographical approach will be developed that foregrounds situated, embodied and emotional experience of young people. The research builds on previous geographical research on mental health and its relevance to the governance of behaviour, practices and spaces (Parr, 1998 ; Wolch and Philo, 2000; Callard 2003), and health geography research on therapeutic landscapes and care (Conradson, 2005). Combining this with perspectives from continental philosophies of the body, feminist science and technology studies, affect theory, and posthumanism (Deleuze, 1988; Braidotti, 2013; Wilson, 2015; Grosz, 2017; Roy, 2018) will enable new insight into the multiple interacting components (mind, body, non-human actors, technologies, environment) involved in shaping life.

An online survey of 500 young people aged 16-25 will investigate usage and perceptions of eMental Health technologies. I will undertake a formal placement at Pause to map local provision of preventative mental health services onto national policy frameworks and advocacy activities. Through this, I will recruit participants and conduct stakeholder interviews to map changes in care provision in Birmingham since the NHS Five Year Forward View for Mental Health (2016). Qualitative interviews will also be carried out with community-based mental health practitioners in Birmingham on their evaluation of young people's use of eMental health apps.

The project will explore how eMental Health technologies and apps attempt to treat negative affect across multiple scales, from the molecular (neural) to the body, city and state. Companies and public health providers are developing these services based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Despite its recent prominence as a treatment, critical perspectives on CBT question its long-term efficacy, and there is a need to analyse the impact of this framework from a socio-political and user-based perspective (Burkeman, 2016; Fullagar et al., 2017; Andersson et al., 2018). Drawing on post-structuralist philosophies, such as Deleuze and Guattari's (1987 [1980]; 1994) writings on affect, subjectivity and capture, and Derridean auto-affection (Colebrook, 2013) , I will critically examine relations between app and user, as an example of a therapeutic encounter , which potentially changes processes of thought and subject-formation and encourages new ways of thinking about mental health diagnosis, prevention and treatment.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2243138 Studentship ES/P000711/1 30/09/2019 30/09/2023 Jessy Ella Williams