October 1st, 2013

Apps embraced by mental health professionals

As a teen with an anxiety disorder growing up in Wilton, Conn., Brandon Cohn felt frustrated spending the first 20 minutes of every therapy session explaining what happened to him over the previous week while the last 10 minutes were devoted to scheduling the next appointment.

“Then when I’d left, I would question if I had told her everything I should have told her,” Cohn, now 21, recalls. “I’d realize that I hadn’t slept very well that week so maybe it was just my sleeping habits and she didn’t know about it. All of a sudden, it felt like everything was sort of breaking down.”

So as a student at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Cohn and high school friend David Conway developed a mobile app to streamline the communication process between therapist and client. MyPsych allows users to record their daily emotions, stressors and lifestyle habits, create video journals, set goals for improvement and fill out electronic forms. Using MyPsychTES.com, a therapist can access and review client data, run analysis on graphs, measure progress meeting goals set together, and even send a text reminder about appointments.

More than half of American adults have a smartphone, according to Nielsen’s 2013 Mobile Consumer Report. And apps that provide health-related tips, appointment reminders, self-assessments, treatment tools – and interaction between providers and patients if they are connected to a clinician Web site – are increasingly being embraced by mental health professionals who say they can enhance treatment.

Pratyusha Tummala-Narra, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling psychology at Boston College, recommends apps iBreathe for promoting stress reduction strategies and eCBT Mood, which helps users track daily and weekly depression. She says there are other worthwhile apps that help people in substance abuse recovery and smoking cessation programs. So long as people aren’t using mental health apps for self-diagnosis or increasing their isolation by using them, she considers them useful tools

“All of these apps in my experience are useful in conjunction with psychotherapy, the actual work of the therapist and client,” Tummala-Narra says. “These apps do not replace human interaction.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have jointly worked on a suite of mobile apps to help service members self-manage readjustment challenges and get help. The app PTSD Coach, which lets users track symptoms and teaches strategies for managing posttraumatic stress disorder, has had more than 125,000 downloads since its April 2011 launch.

VA research has found mental health care providers are generally favorable regarding the apps with clinicians under age 40 and those who own smartphones being most favorable, says Eric Kuhn, Ph.D., a research health science specialist at the VA’s National Center for PTSD’s Dissemination and Training Division in Menlo Park, Calif.

Cohn graduated from Tufts last May with a double major in quantitative economics and entrepreneurial leadership and is now living in New York City where he and Conway are principals of MyPsych. Cohn contacted psychologists to get their perspective while developing the app. Among them was Nadja Reilly, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Massachusetts School for Professional Psychology, now among MyPsych’s biggest supporters.

“I think it’s great. Innovation that can really maximize your therapeutic time is really helpful,” Reilly says. “I’m not afraid that apps or machines are out to replace us for sure. I still think that one of the most critical components of really doing treatment and therapy is that one-on-one relational aspect.”

As associate director of MSPP’s Freedman Center for Child and Family Development, Reilly’s work focuses on prevention and mental health promotion for kids and adolescents. Since 2011, she has worked with Numedeon, Inc., of Pasadena, Calif., creating emotional mental health and wellness content for Whyville.net, an educational virtual world for children ages 8 to 15 with 7.5 million registered users worldwide. Reilly’s work has received funding from a private foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“Especially where kids and adolescents are concerned, we need to start moving further away from the crisis intervention model where we’re putting out fires and really taking more of a look at how can we begin to do more prevention work. How can we reach broader audiences, more than the one-on-one typical office visit would allow you to do, and how can we incorporate this into more of the places where kids are playing and learning and socializing? So I really see it as a wonderful opportunity for complementing our work,” says Reilly.

By Janine Weisman

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