My whole body trembled while I waited for an emergency-room doctor to come persuade me that, contrary to the messages my brain was sending me, I wasn’t actually dying. The tiny hospital room where I had set up camp was lit only by my phone. I gripped it forcefully, thumbing through my usual social-media circuit — first Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram — like my phone was my lifeline to reality. Which, in a way, it was.
The anxiety attack that brought me to the hospital came at the end of an unbearably long summer, one that I spent mostly within the confines of my own home, gripped by agoraphobia for weeks on end. During that time, my phone was an electronic escape hatch, a fast way to connect with the support, information, and resources I needed to feel like I was still part of the outside world. Because I had my phone, I had something physical to hold onto when I got lost in my mind, an anchor to weigh me down when the current of fear threatened to pull me somewhere dark and deep. By the light of my iPhone, I could see a world beyond the insular one I was living in.
All of which is to say: All the hand-wringing about smartphones’ negative effects on mental-health misses the fact that they can also be a valuable tool for someone working through a mental-health crisis. Writer Jean Twenge, for example, argued earlier this year in The Atlantic that smartphone use among young people contributes to isolation and general disconnection, ultimately increasing depression and suicide rates. Weaving troubling anecdotes about phone-obsessed teens alongside a number of clinical studies, Twenge created a desolate picture of a generation in crisis. But many are wary of her argument, which leaves out the benefits of living in a connected world — especially for those desperately in need of connection.
Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, says that in and of themselves, smartphones are value neutral, not inherently destructive; it’s how use our phones that plays a role in our mental health. “We absolutely know for a fact that smartphone use can be valuable,” he says. “Yes, we can use our phones to read about our country’s relationship with North Korea, but we can also use them to reach out to other people and to get information we need.”
For someone like me who suffers from severe mental-health concerns, the value of a smartphone’s instant connection goes up exponentially. In many cases, having your phone always within reach isn’t just helpful or convenient; it’s critical.
Although there aren’t currently specific studies on how smartphone use can be a preventative or protective factor in mental health, there is plenty of evidence about the importance of connection — which is the spirit of the smartphone — during times of crisis. “Connecting to someone going through something similar is a practical strategy to reduce shame and isolation, which we know is good for our mental health,” Humphreys says. When you can’t leave the house, finding that connection via in-person support groups isn’t exactly an option. During the weeks I spent isolated in my bedroom at the height of my agoraphobia, my phone was my of finding it — and also the only way I had to access my therapist and my doctor, both of whom were willing to do video calls with me. More broadly, the growing field of telepsychiatry demonstrates the value of the internet in linking people to psychiatric care, especially when their location or illness prevents them from seeing someone face-to-face.
And while clinics and support groups operate in limited hours and in accordance with professional boundaries, the internet is always on — and someone is always awake. “Before phones and internet, if you woke up with horrifying anxiety in the middle of the night, there was not a lot you could do to get support. Now, it’s easy: You can Skype into a support group that meets somewhere across the world or reach out to whoever it is you need,” Humphreys says.
For me, just the idea of having instantaneous access to a friend was enough to blunt my anxiety in acute situations — like the feeling of security that came from carrying Xanax in my purse, just in case. One morning, for example, I woke up breathless at 3 a.m., like someone had been sitting on my chest. Rather than waking up my local friends (or taking myself to the emergency room again), I texted a friend three hours ahead in New York, who I knew would be awake with her toddler by then. She didn’t reply immediately, but even the comfort of knowing someone was awake, somewhere — that the entire world wasn’t as dark as it felt in that moment— was a great comfort. When I woke up again a few hours later, I was greeted by a sequence of prayer hands and multicolored heart emoji.
“Sometimes hearing someone say hello and just knowing they are there is enough,” Humphreys says. This is why some people call crisis lines and hang up, or lament to a friend via text message and then fall asleep — we’re empowered by the knowledge of a safety net.
For me, that knowledge took the form of an iPhone. It was the text threads in which, when I wanted to be, I could be funny Ashley and not anxious Ashley; the notes app where I stored 50+ mantras that reminded me of who I was when I forgot; the late-night social-media scroll sessions that, even momentarily, brought some color back to my life. It was the copious, frantic phone calls to pharmacists and doctors and life coaches and therapists (resourcefulness is not something I lack). Yes, it was just a phone: a piece of metal and glass, a five-and-a-half-inch LCD screen smudged by sticky toddler fingers. But in its artificial glow, during some of the hardest weeks of my life, I became brave enough to keep going.