Why Apps Cannot Replace Temperance in Preventing Suicide

In a fast-paced world, everyone wants everything instantly and effortlessly. This desire is part of a culture in which happiness and pleasure are expected yet not always delivered. When people inevitably fail to obtain all that they want, they suffer from stress and depression. No one should be surprised that they then also want instant relief or that there is an explosion of therapy apps that try to provide it.

Therapy apps are becoming increasingly popular among those who need help. Indeed, the market is huge. Nearly 20 percent of adults suffer from mental illness, half of whom seek help. About 35 percent of young adults between 18 and 25 receive some kind of treatment for mental disorders. This, however, does not prevent the rising number of suicides—now at 45,000 every year.

Millions of Americans, many of them young, are turning to the nearly 10,000 therapy apps available for immediate download. They are easy to use and less expensive than personal therapists. They are also available 24 hours a day. Therapy apps offer a variety of services that range from advice from licensed therapists to text message reinforcement to meditation aids.

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The Services Apps Offer
Apps from 7 Cups, Talkspace, and BetterHelp concentrate on connecting users to licensed therapists who wait as Uber-like freelancers and provide aid to the afflicted via text chat. Other companies provide “listeners” who hold people’s virtual hand for emotional text support in times of distress, but cannot give any kind of medical or psychological advice. One company even offers a robot therapist.

Apps developers Headspace and Moodnotes offer self-help aids that promote mindfulness and meditation as a means to deal with anxiety and stress.

It is a crowded market, and app companies are making increasingly bolder claims about their products. The promises are great but the results are not easily measurable.

In fact, studies reveal that the therapy apps can slightly affect depression since they do reduce loneliness and immediate anxiety. However, they appear to have little or no effect in preventing suicides, the most important metric in the mental health field.

Looking for Causes
While therapy apps may help, their use is focused on reducing or controlling the pain and anxiety people feel in their lives. The apps cannot delve into the profound causes of things, but serve more as painkillers. They do not address the source of the pain.

Mental health is a fragile field since the mind does not work like a machine or computer. It is full of context and nuance. Failure to perceive vital signs can often lead to tragedy.

However, one general observation is that most mental health issues today involve some kind of intemperance. Addressing this intemperance would help resolve a mental health crisis that affects one fifth of all American adults and over a third of young people.

The Fruits of Intemperance
Temperance is the virtue whereby individuals govern their natural appetites and passions in accordance with the norms prescribed by reason and Faith. St. Thomas Aquinas says that temperance “withdraws man from things which seduce the appetite from obeying reason” (II-II, q. 141, a. 2).

Modern society is full of opportunities for intemperance. It facilitates people seeking out the extremes of their impulses and unbridled desires. This supreme intemperance manifests itself in those intense pleasures associated with sexuality, extreme excitement, social acceptance, or the abuse of alcohol, opioids, or drugs. Intemperance tends to intensify and consume individuals as it progresses.

Thus, intemperance brings on periods of high nervousness, irregularity, and weakness. People make this intemperance the center of their affections. The intense nervous vibration of these illegitimate pleasures leads to disinterest in the legitimate pleasures of life.

They find tedious everything that is not on the line of their intemperance. Thus, all those things that people normally find engaging—books, conversation, and religion—become tedious and wearisome. In their place is an emptiness of thought and an ever emboldened and uncontrolled imagination. This imbalance cannot fail to affect the physical and psychological health of individuals. It leads to the anxiety and depression that eventually result in suicides.

The Benefits of Temperance
Temperance puts the soul and the mind in order. It provides the necessary calm and balance to counter the irrational attacks of intemperance. Under its logic, temperance suppresses the tyranny of unbridled passions and brings the person back to sanity. It undermines the nihilistic urge to suicide.

However, the purpose and goal of temperance is not only to suppress but to establish an inner order in man and society from which comes forth serenity and harmony. This is why temperance is so attractive. It allows for the legitimate pursuit of pleasures that are in accordance with human nature. It enthrones in society the calm beauty of the arts and culture that uplift, entertain, and satisfy the soul.

Thus, the joy of life can be found in solicitude, conversation, leisure and prayer. The institution of the family is a school of temperance that supports the individual in the search for meaning and purpose. The Church teaches the faithful to suffer with dignity and resignation. She unburdens consciences with forgiveness and Confession. She provides that sublime beauty of liturgy and morality that leads to the knowledge and love of God.

Profound Solutions to Profound Problems
Not all mental illness can be cured by a return to temperance. Some involve chronic conditions that will always plague mankind.

However, much of the stress in today’s hyper-sexualized society could be avoided if the virtue of temperance were practiced. In the face of Facebook friends who create false images and expectations, people might be relieved of their anxiety by a temperate understanding of who they are. So many of the ills of the day would find their cure in the bosom of the temperate Christian family. The guidance of the traditional teachings of the Church can provide certainty, calm, and order in today’s nervous world of thrills and agitation.

However, these are profound solutions that require a change of life and society. Even more difficult, they would require people to stand out from others and to fight against the culture and themselves.

It is far easier to find a therapy app that can help stop the pain for a while. However, no piece of computer code can plumb the depths of the human soul. No Uber-therapists can probe the more profound causes of things. Inside a culture of intemperance, the suicides will continue regardless of the apps that appear.


  • John Horvat II

    John Horvat II is vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and the author of Return to Order.

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