Using Social Media to Combat Depression

Excerpt of Article written by Kyle VanHemert | Wired

2015-0408 Depression Picture Hovland Getty
Oivind Hovland/Getty

Robert Morris developed Panoply, a crowdsourced website for improving mental health. The site, which was the focus of his doctoral thesis at MIT Media Lab, trained users to reframe and reassess negative thoughts, embedding an established technique called cognitive behavioral therapy in an engaging, unthreatening interface. After a study confirmed the site’s effectiveness, Morris formed a company and is now working on turning the idea into a polished consumer app.

Though depression is thought to affect somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of US population, people avoid seeking treatment for many reasons. It can be expensive and inconvenient. It’s also in many ways taboo. As a society, we don’t make it easy for people to talk about mental health. As Morris sees it, technology has the potential to overcome all those barriers.

That belief led him to the Affective Computing group at MIT Media Lab, where Panoply was born, ironically, during a spell of low self-esteem. Upon arriving in Cambridge, Morris quickly came to feel like an imposter—he was a psychologist in a sea of highly capable programmers. “The expectation was that you could code at a world-class level,” he says. “I felt very, very insecure.”

If you have ever reassured a recently-dumped friend that there are plenty of fish in the sea, you have practiced a simple form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is the blanket term for a number of techniques that help people identify negative thoughts and see them more objectively, a process often referred to as “reappraisal.” According to Morris, “It’s really about trying to readjust your thinking to bring better health.”

Panoply was cleverly designed to help people internalize this skill. The site, which Morris built with a clinical psychologist from Northwestern University, invited anonymized users to describe a situation that was upsetting them. For example: “My roommate just came home, and I said ‘Hi,’ but he walked right by without looking at me.” The app would then ask that user to write out interpretations of this event. They might say, “I don’t think my roommate has ever liked me. I’m not popular. I’m not cool enough.”


Click here to read another Beyond Adversity post.

Thanks to Kyle VanHemert for writing the article; Robert Morris, designer of Panoply, for contributing to the article; WIRED for committing its resources to publishing the article; Google for helping me find the article; and all the people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible for me to include the picture and text in this post.


  1. Scott–

    This empowering technical self help innovation offering positive feedback countering negative effects of cognitive distorting views sounds great.

    1. Esther, I think so too. There are both good and bad things about Social Media. As best I know, we just have to accept the bad things to enjoy the good things. ~ Scott

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