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Technology and Mental Health

Technology and Mental Health

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

Group of multicultural friends sitting at dining table for lunch and using smartphones showing how technology can impact mental health.Everywhere you go, people are staring at their smartphones. But is all that screen time good for you?  Spoiler alert: it’s not. The good news is there is a solution—and it’s available through that same smartphone.

Since 2012, there has been a “sudden increase in symptoms of depression, suicide risk factors and suicide rates in teenagers,” which coincides with the rise of popularity of smartphones, according to psychologist Jean Twenge, one of the authors of a recent study reported by NPR.

Twenge’s research found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are “71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide” – no matter what they are doing online.

This phenomenon is not limited to teenagers. According to Anxiety.org, researchers found that smartphone use was “associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as increased stress. The more participants used their smartphones, the more likely they were to experience symptoms associated with these disorders and report being stressed.”

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Yet, smartphone technology can also play a role in treating depression and anxiety. Apple’s iPhone app of the year for 2017 is Calm, a free app with subscription options designed “for mindfulness and meditation to bring more clarity, joy and peace to your daily life.”

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Some apps can help reduce user depression symptoms, according to research published in the journal World Psychiatry. In the study, volunteers (with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder) used more than 20 different mental health apps over a few weeks and months. Surprisingly, while all the apps were effective in reducing symptoms, those apps that were self-contained and did not incorporate clinician feedback were more effective than those that relied on clinicians.

However, a Psychiatry Advisor article suggests, “experts believe that these apps will work best when used in conjunction with medication and/or in-person therapy.”

Close up of hands hold a smartphone on a city street, showing how technology can hurt and help our mental healthThere’s an App for That

Apps may fill a critical gap in obtaining mental healthcare. Surveys indicate that while as many as 43.8 million Americans experience a behavioral health crisis in a year, 60 percent don’t receive treatment, often because of a lack of access or resources. Apps can give patients the chance to access services and support wherever they are and whenever they need them. According to NBC News, there are more than 10,000 mental health apps available. These apps help in a variety of ways including mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy methods, and ways for users to monitor their moods.

With that many apps to choose from, how do you know what might work best for you? A great place to start is with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Here are some of their recommended apps.

  • Anxiety Reliever (iPhone) – enables users to track anxiety symptoms and provides relaxation exercises. A limited version of the app is available for free and the full app can be bought for $5.99.
  • Anxiety Coach (iPhone) – Mayo Clinics $4.99 Anxiety Coach is a comprehensive self-help tool for reducing a wide variety of fears and worries from extreme shyness to obsessions and compulsions.
  • Breathe2Relax (Android) – provides detailed information on the effects of stress on the body and instructions and practice exercises to help users learn the stress management skill called diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Happify (Android and iPhone) – turns the latest innovations in the science of happiness into activities and games that help you lead a more fulfilling life.
  • Headspace (Android and iPhone) – teaches you the essentials of living a healthier, happier life through meditation and mindfulness. The Basic pack is free, but there is also a paid subscription upgrade.
  • MoodKit (iPhone) – developed by two clinical psychologists, this $6.99 app has activities designed to help you improve your mood
  • MoodTools (iPhone and Android) – According to iTunes, MoodTools is designed to help you combat depression and alleviate your negative moods, aiding you on your road to recovery.
  • Pacifica (Android/iPhone) – if you suffer from anxiety, this free app provides mood and health tracking, mindfulness meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

For more mental healthcare apps, visit PsyberGuide. Led by Dr. Stephen Schueller, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, this website uses a standardized rating system to help consumers select from more than 100 apps and digital services, rated based on credibility, user experience, and transparency.

Your Health Insurance May Cover Apps

Many health systems and providers are adding apps and digital services to their mental health and telehealth treatment options.

Northwestern University is using IntelliCare, a suite of apps that “work together to target common causes of depression and anxiety like sleep problems, social isolation, lack of activity, and obsessive thinking” and are part of a nationwide research study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Apps and other digital services should not be seen as a substitute for medical and professional help and treatment, but they can be a complement.

The bottom line: Technology, in the form of apps for depression and anxiety, may be a good antidote for some of the problems created by that very same technology.

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Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.

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