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Should You Use Smartphone Apps to Help Manage Your Mental Health?

Posted: Thu, August 10, 2017

By: Jake Bissaro

Chances are you probably use your smartphone to do things like pay bills, schedule appointments, and shop. But is it a good idea to rely on one to treat your mental health?  A search for “mental health” in the Android app store provides a seemingly endless list of apps that claim to alleviate symptoms of conditions from anxiety to schizophrenia. Last month saw the introduction of the WoeBot, an artificial intelligence-powered “chatbot” based in Facebook messenger that interacts with the user, using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help manage mood.

These types of programs offer the possibility for greatly expanded access to mental health treatment, but the limited research on the subject shows that very few apps are based on scientific evidence or tested before release.

Sarah Pratt, PhD, an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “Tele-psychiatry is still so new that it’s impossible to properly judge the effectiveness of these apps,” said Pratt. “Logging into an app is definitely not the same as sitting down with a professional who is clinically trained to give advice based on medical history and situation.”

But as access to behavioral health services is still not a reality for many – federal research from 2015 found that only 41 percent of U.S. adults with a mental health condition in the previous year had received treatment – the opportunities for increased access is undeniable.

“Many people may want or need more care than they’re getting from their mental health provider, but too often the resources just aren’t available,” said Pratt. “Apps like these have the potential to serve as a valuable supplement to their traditional treatment, but at this point should definitely not be used as a replacement.”

Pratt is leading a telemedicine study with TPC, which examines the effectiveness of tablets with specially-tailored content designed to monitor and connect with clients who suffer from severe mental illness. The client logs in everyday and answers questions that will help determine how they’re doing that day/progressing each week. The clients and the tablet responses are monitored by a clinician who regularly checks in with clients and provides immediate support if a potential problem is identified.

Pratt says that this combination of technology and clinical expertise may be the best way forward. “I think that most of these apps are limited by the fact that they’re a one-way street,” said Pratt. “Programs with some sort of involvement from a professional could better encourage people to care for themselves.”

Though the telehealth study with Dartmouth will take another two years to complete, the team has testimonials from those who have participated so far. One client reported liking the device because it reminds them to take medication every day. Another client would often feel too depressed to leave the house. TPC’s telehealth specialist was able to receive that info in real time, and call the client for coaching. After the phone call, the client was able to leave the house and carry on with her day.

The bottom line: don’t assume that these new apps can take the place of proven methods like talk therapy and prescribed medication. Chances are, most of them can’t provide the results they promise, and they should only be used as a supplement to traditional behavioral health treatment. And always keep your mental health professional informed if you choose to use some kind of technology to manage your symptoms.