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Mental Health Apps: Technology for Self-Management

Approximately one in five US adults—roughly 44 million Americans—experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet in the past year only 41 percent of that population received services for a mental condition. The reasons keeping them from seeking treatment include stigma, cost, and limited awareness of the illness and treatment options.

Communication studies professor Madhu Reddy, associate dean for graduate education and a faculty member in the school’s Center for Communication and Health, is working to provide better support for mental health assessment and management. He has partnered with researchers from the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITS), led by the Feinberg School of Medicine’s David D. Mohr, to develop and implement technology-enabled services (TES) to address issues of depression and anxiety. The research uses Intellicare, a suite of 12 mobile apps developed by CBITS that work in concert to address such common causes of depression as anxiety, sleep problems, and obsessive thinking. The apps are part of a nationwide study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re doing a series of studies to evaluate user needs,” says Reddy, who leads the TES design activities, “and also to explore and best design these tools and services to engage users and to ensure they get the type of support they need.”

Reddy says some of the apps use principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to give users the kind of relief they might get during a psychiatrist visit but in a much more accessible form. The Daily Feats app, for example, helps users recognize and track achievements; Slumber Time manages healthy sleep habits; iCope provides inspirational messages and encouraging words; and Worry Knot helps reduce concerns through personal, guided worry management techniques.

“How effective is technology in supporting mental health?” Reddy asks. “People get better, people improve.” In a study of 99 Intellicare users, Mohr’s team found substantial reduction in the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The Intellicare apps aren’t meant to replace in-person therapies but are a means of assisting with day-to-day challenges. This is helping researchers take the next step in designing useful interventions that are used regularly—the foundation of research that will continue to explore how apps can help manage mental health.

“It’s not just about building the apps but understanding the context of use and the design principles that are working, then implementing these technologies in a way that’s sustainable,” says Reddy. “It’s how we effectively leverage this research to ensure that health systems know they can support patients by utilizing these tools.”