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How Apps are Used to Treat Mental Health Disorders

The World Health Organization (WHO) designates each April 7 World Health Day to raise awareness about a specific major health issue. The theme for 2017 is depression and other common mental disorders.

In WHO’s annual paper on Global Health Estimates, the organization’s researchers estimated that approximately 322 million people, or 4.4% of the world’s population, suffer from depression or a related condition. Researchers concluded that the number of people with depression and anxiety disorders is increasing, especially in lower-income countries.

Even as the problem has grown, smartphone technology has emerged as a way for some people to approach treatment for depression and anxiety. In many cases, apps are the new therapist.

Mental Health App Research Evolving

There are apps to help people deal with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, insomnia and many other mental health issues. Only recently have researchers begun to explore more thoroughly the use of computer and smartphone technology to aid in mental health treatment. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) awarded 404 grants worth $445 million from 2009-2015 for research into computer-based interventions designed to prevent or reveal mental health disorders.

In one recent study, a research team from Northwestern University tested a customized suite of apps designed to help patients reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The findings were published in January 2017 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The study concluded that among the 99 participants, using the suite of apps reduced the severity of depression and anxiety symptoms by as much as 50%. This is about the same outcome expected when patients undergo psychotherapy and use antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Meanwhile, the NIMH has dedicated a section of its website to the influence of technology on the future of mental health treatment. It lists a number of advantages of using smartphone and other new technology to help mitigate the effects of depression and anxiety, including:

  • They are relatively easy to use for new patients who might never have sought information about or treatment for mental health issues.
  • Treatment and/or information is available 24 hours a day.
  • Patients can remain anonymous if they choose to do so.
  • Care is available anywhere a patient might need it, such as at home, in an office or elsewhere.
  • More people can access information and/or treatment than can be treated by the available pool of therapists.

The NIMH cautions that because of a relative dearth of research into the efficacy of apps to help curb the symptoms of depression and anxiety, a number of concerns must be taken into consideration. These include:

  • There is a shortage of scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of treatment with apps.
  • Not all apps are designed to work on a personalized level; a one-size-fits-all model is still the norm.
  • Security and privacy concerns that plague most forms of online technology are compounded by the fact that many mental health apps require the sharing of deeply personal information.
  • In order to stand out in a crowded app marketplace, some app developers might over-promise in their marketing efforts.
  • The field of health apps remains largely unregulated, and there are no industry-wide standards to help consumers know if an app can deliver on its promises.

How Apps Can Help With Depression & Anxiety

One of the difficulties confronting regulatory bodies is the pace of technological progress. Because federal regulations take months or even years to be enacted, technology might already have advanced by the time an app is tested, approved and regulated.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has made an updated list of mental health apps and provides a ratings key for the apps that are reviewed on its website. The apps are rated for ease of use, effectiveness, personalization, a patient’s ability to provide feedback and the amount of research evidence provided to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Even though the NIMH does not endorse or review particular apps, its website does provide a wealth of information about ongoing research and current trends in mental health app development. The NIMH highlights the following ways apps are being used in the field of mental health treatment:

  • Self-management and symptom tracking – Users employ apps and/or software that measure vital signs such as heart rate, movement and breathing patterns, or track relevant information such as sleep patterns, frequency of anxiety attacks, etc. Wearable technology, such as smartwatches, enables simpler data collection as users rely less on carrying a mobile device with them wherever they go.
  • Cognitive development – Some apps provide exercises that help users improve their thinking skills using memory exercises or other cognitive remediation techniques.
  • Skill-training – A number of apps “gamify” treatment to help users develop new coping skills or thinking skills. This might include the use of trivia questions, puzzles and reading comprehension exercises.
  • Supported care – One area the NIMH considers fertile ground for technological research is telemedicine, or the use of real-time video to connect patients with caregivers. A number of apps already support this concept, either with chat functionality or video therapy.

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