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Mental-Health Advice: Straight from Your Smartphone

Researchers are working on apps that can enable you to seek mental health advice on your smartphone, and it seems to be effective.

A novel suite of 13 speedy mini-apps called IntelliCare resulted in participants reporting significantly less depression and anxiety by using the apps on their smartphones up to four times a day, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

The apps offer exercises to de-stress, reduce self-criticism and worrying, methods to help your life feel more meaningful, mantras to highlight your strengths, strategies for a good night’s sleep and more.

Most apps designed for mental health typically offer a single strategy to feel better or provide too many features that make them difficult to navigate. Users may get bored or overwhelmed and may stop using the apps after a few weeks.

But participants used the IntelliCare interactive apps as many as four times daily — or an average of 195 times — for eight weeks of the study.  They spent an average of one minute using each app, with longer times for apps with relaxation videos.

The 96 participants who completed the research study reported that they experienced about a 50 percent decrease in the severity of depressive and anxiety symptoms. The short-term study-related reductions are comparable to results expected in clinical practice using psychotherapy or with that seen using antidepressant medication.

The study was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“We designed these apps so they fit easily into people’s lives and could be used as simply as apps to find a restaurant or directions,” said lead study author David Mohr, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Some of the participants kept using them after the study because they felt that the apps   helped them feel better,” Mohr said. “There were many apps to try during the study, so there was a sense of novelty.”

Health care apps

Participants had access to the 13 IntelliCare apps from Google Play and received eight weeks of coaching for the use of IntelliCare. Coaching included an initial phone call plus two or more text messages per week over the eight weeks. In the study, 105 participants were enrolled and 96 of them completed the study.

The preliminary study did not include a control arm, so it’s possible that some people who enrolled in the trial would have improved anyway, partly because they may have been motivated to try something new, Mohr said. He now has launched a larger trial, recruiting 300 participants, with a control arm.

Some of the IntelliCare apps include:

Daily Feats: designed to motivate you to add worthwhile and rewarding activities into your day to increase your overall satisfaction in life.

Purple Chill: designed to help you unwind with audio recordings that guide you through exercises to de-stress and worry less.