Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

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Stressed, anxious or depressed? There's an app for that!

1/16/2020 by Craig Sawchuk, PhD, LP and Olivia Bogucki, PhD

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More than 6 billion people worldwide actively use a mobile or smartphone. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of individuals in the United States who owned a smartphone increased from 35% to 81%. Mobile technology allows us anytime, anywhere access to shopping, banking, dating, social networking, gaming and even health care. 

An estimated 325,000 health-related apps currently exist, accounting for approximately 90 million downloads last year. Increasing rates of mental health problems, coupled with multiple barriers to care, mean that mental health apps may present an opportunity to enhance access to effective treatments. 

Just like other apps, mental health apps have a number of features: Education, self-monitoring, symptom assessment and tracking, engagement reminders, general support, social networking, coaching, skill-building, and even crisis management. While over 10,000 mental health apps are currently available, only a fraction have any evidence supporting their actual effectiveness in reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. 

Choosing the right app for you

So how does one choose? An excellent on-line resource is Psyberguide. This service is a great one-stop-shop for up-to-date reviews of mental health apps. They rate apps across three domains: Credibility (scientific evidence), user experience (design, usability) and transparency (privacy policy). 

Here are a few apps available for download on iOS and/or Android that have some evidence of their effectiveness and decent user experience ratings. The majority of these apps are free, although some have additional in-app purchases for expanded content and modules. 

Stress & resilience

  • Mindfulness Coach. This app from the Veterans Administration (VA) provides basic instructions for a variety of mindfulness and relaxation exercises. Reminders help routine use of these skills throughout the day. 
  • Pacifica. Based on principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), wellness and health-behavior change, this high-quality, visually appealing app helps users track changes in mood and behavior. Goal setting, mindfulness exercises, relaxation skills, challenging thoughts and virtual assistance are all available in a multi-modal learning environment. 

Anxiety & depression

  • IntelliCare. Northwestern University developed a range of apps based on common CBT interventions, such as challenging thoughts, behavioral activation, problem-solving, social connectedness, physical activity, and sleep management. Clinical trials have demonstrated significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression when using this app over several weeks. 
  • PTSD Coach. This app, also developed by the VA, guides users through evidence-based interventions for trauma, including exposure therapy, challenging thoughts, social support and healthy sleep. This is one of the most-researched mental health apps showing outcomes improve when used concurrently with clinician support. 
  • MindShift CBT. Anxiety Canada developed this straightforward, skill-building app that emphasizes Taking Action (exposure therapy), Healthy Thinking (challenging thoughts), and Chill Zone (relaxation) to manage symptoms associated with anxiety and perfectionism. 

Artificial intelligence/chat bots

  • WoeBot. Interactive texting with your "friendly self-care expert" guides users through various conversations that emphasize mood tracking, positive support, gratitude practice, and problem-solving. An S.O.S. function helps to direct those in an emotional crisis to national suicide prevention hotlines. 
  • Youper. Based on CBT principles and health behavior changes, this app functions as your "emotional health assistant". Interactive exchanges encourage healthy goal attainment. 

Mental health apps can be a cost-effective way to access care for common mental health problems. As the health care consumer changes, the use of smartphones for getting care is becoming increasingly more commonplace. While apps may provide coaching or tools for basic skill-building, they shouldn't be a replacement for in-person mental health services when needed and available. 

Dr. Craig Sawchuk is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson and co-chairs the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health. 

Dr. Olivia Bogucki is a clinical health psychology fellow in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson