Mental health apps are becoming increasingly popular and more sophisticated.

Researchers in the healthcare field are developing mobile apps capable of monitoring and intervention for everything from suicide prevention to anxiety, addiction and more. Proponents say such apps can provide personalized, real-time information and help to patients.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has a mobile app called PTSD Coach that provides facts and tools for servicemembers and veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“More psychologists are exploring online sites and apps just as more patients are interested in using them,” the American Psychological Association (APA) notes on its website. “Research does show that some technological tools can help when used in conjunction with in-office therapy.” 

In a study published in 2015, researchers noted that by analyzing data from participants’ smartphone sensors, text messages, app usage and location they were able to identify individuals with depressive symptoms with 87% accuracy. 

“Features extracted from mobile phone sensor data, including GPS and phone usage, provided behavioral markers that were strongly related to depressive symptom severity,” the study concluded.

The continued adoption of mobile apps could change the way people with mental health issues seek and receive help. Let’s take a closer look at some of this developing technology.

PRIORI

The smartphone app PRIORI was developed to help determine whether an individual’s speech patterns can predict mood swings in patients with bipolar disorder. The app records a user’s speech during phone calls and analyzes it for patterns in pitch, speed, silence and other factors. That data is compared against a benchmark of the patient’s mood established by a trained clinician.

Preliminary research suggests that speech data can identify manic and depressive moods, which could have a huge impact on the lives of those with bipolar disorder and their families. The ability to recognize mood shifts via speech patterns could also be applied in the treatment of other mental health issues.

Mobilyze

This mobile app project seeks to use information from smartphone sensors, such as GPS, recent calls and ambient light, to predict a patient’s moods, emotions and activities. By automating the collection of data regarding a patient’s activities, location and social situations, Mobilyze would eliminate the need for patients to self-report.

Researchers said the context-aware app could allow healthcare providers to deliver treatment recommendations and interventions to patients in distress in real-time.

CrossCheck

CrossCheck is an app that focuses on relapse prevention for schizophrenic patients. The app is currently in a trial that started in September 2013. The trial, funded by the National Institute for Mental Health, is scheduled to continue until July 2017.

The app collects observational data such as sleep patterns, traveling distance and movement behaviors via a smartphone’s microphone, light sensor and GPS, along with screen orientation information. This is combined with a self-data report collected weekly assessing quality of life, functioning and other symptoms. Self-report and observational data are then used to create a “relapse signature” for patients, and the app can alert treatment providers to signs of a possible relapse.

“If successful, our proposed system can be rapidly made available to a population that is in dire need of more effective resources, and can serve as a template for mobile monitoring and treatment systems for a range of clinical conditions with an episodic nature,” according to the researchers from the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health.

Potential Limitations to Mental Health Apps

As with many other aspects of the digital age, privacy is a concern when it comes to the use of mental health apps and the collection of sensitive information. Apps that record a patient’s phone conversations, for example, can use encryption to limit access to confidential information.

In addition, there is no guarantee that smartphone owners who download a mobile application will actually use the app. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 58% of participants had downloaded a health-related app to their smartphone. However, nearly 47% of those respondents said they had downloaded a health app they no longer used.

The study noted that participants cited several common reasons for stopping use of a health app, including: loss of interest; time-consuming data entry; confusion over using the app; and unexpected costs.

Despite these possible limitations, the emergence of mental health apps, a field known as telepsychology, represents a major development in the field of psychology. When psychologists and other mental health professionals only see patients weekly or monthly, it may be difficult for them to flag signs of a relapse. Patients can also withhold information from their therapists.

By providing access to real-time patient data, mental health apps could help healthcare providers overcome obstacles presented by factors such as cost, time or physical location.

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