If you’re like the average adult in the United States, there are few times in your day when you are not holding your smart phone in your hands. If you’re not, it is nearby and easily accessible. Whether good or bad, we are a culture that is tethered to our devices.
When it comes to managing mental health care, the smart phone may be one of our greatest allies. Smart phone mobile apps exist to help people track their exercise and diet. People can tap into a variety of tools to help them with daily productivity. Can similar platforms help people with their mental health care as well?
In November of 2014, Newsweek presented a report on the lack of technology available for individuals dealing with a variety of mental illnesses. It speaks to the stigma and isolation that many feel when it comes to sharing their stories. Perhaps there is an erroneous belief that if no apps exist for tracking mental illness, the mental illness itself doesn’t exist.
The report discussed several recent projects that are exploring the way technology can be used to address mental illness in the United States. One in four adults is directly affected by some level of mental illness and 6% live with a more serious diagnosis. At the same time, there are still a staggering number of people in our country without access to mental health care. The researchers believe that technology could bridge this gap. Rather than requiring patients to jump through a variety of increasingly difficult hoops just to start the diagnosis process, they can use an easily downloadable app.
Let’s look at what some recent studies have had to say about smart phone apps and mental illness.
Making the diagnosis process easier
In July of 2014, researchers at the American Friends of Tel Aviv University published a report about an application they developed that would kick off the diagnosis process and reach more patients affected by mental health issues than traditional methods.
Ninety percent of reported suicides are attributed to mental health issues and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it has the largest burden of any disease on social and economic infrastructures around the world. The urgency to address this issue is only increasing, but the tools at the disposal of medical professionals are sorely outdated. This new technology from Tel Aviv University could be the essential piece missing from most traditional treatments.
The observable indicators of mental health are generally behavioral. Since most people already have smart phones at their disposal, tapping into this technology seems like the most obvious next step. The smart phone can be used to monitor behavioral patterns that are typical of a variety of mental health issues.
From Dr. Uri Nivo:
“Bipolar disorder, for example, starts with a manic episode. A patient who usually makes five or ten calls a day might suddenly start making dozens of calls a day. How much they talk, text, how many places they visit, when they go to bed and for how long — these are all indicators of mental health and provide important insights to clinicians who want to catch a disorder before it is full blown.”
The application will have significant privacy protections built in so the information is only accessible by the patient’s trusted medical professional team.
Behavior patterns and mental health indicators
Another research team, this time at Dartmouth College, had a similar thought. In September of last year they released this study of a new app that tracked the behavior of college students. The Android app, called StudentLife, compared relative happiness, stress, depression, and loneliness to academic performance. Using algorithms, the app can monitor these aspects of the students’ lives to determine if there is concerning behavior. Both passive and automatic sensor data from the phones showed strong correlations between the students’ mental health and performance in school.
For example, students who have better sleep habits and more social interaction were less likely to experience depression. Class attendance was not an indicator of overall wellness. Students who had more conversations were more likely to have higher grade point averages than their counterparts. In fact, the sensor data on the app was able to predict the student GPAs based on their behavioral patterns.
The initial study avoided providing feedback to the students in an effort to appropriately gauge the correlations between behavior, performance, and depression. However, in practice, feedback and intervention would be a key component of the apps function.
The future of smart phones and mental illness
Recently, a Kickstarter campaign was successful in raising the funds to develop a smartphone app that can facilitate conversation and support for individuals dealing with the impact of mental illness.
With the popularity of Fitbit and other apps and smart devices that can help people track their physical health, it only makes sense to develop components for mental health. Mental health is often something that requires long-term support so our culture needs to shed the stigma of defectiveness that comes with a diagnosis and work on the ways mental health patients can get the help they need when they need it.
If you or someone you care about could benefit from additional support in the form of smart phone apps, there are a variety currently available. This directory from PsychCentral is a great starting place. All of the apps listed are free. The apps are designed for several conditions including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As always, when dealing with major health concerns, whether physical, emotional, or mental, consult with your doctor about the best treatments for you.
Do you think smart phone apps can help with mental health support?
Image by Johan Larsson via Flickr