On Your Mind: Apps and technology for mental health maintenance

2014-02-19T09:00:00Z 2014-02-19T09:00:28Z On Your Mind: Apps and technology for mental health maintenanceKathleen Dorsey nwitimes.com
February 19, 2014 9:00 am  • 

Want to set your home’s alarm system? There’s an app for that.

Want to track your movements fitness goals? There’s an app for that too.

Want to know what song is playing right now, wherever you are? There’s even an app for that.

But mental health maintenance? Can there be an app for that?

As it turns out, there is. In addition to professional apps, independent consumer apps such as Lift, Unstuck, Superbetter, Optimism and others are designed with mental health goals in mind.

Some of these apps, such as Unstuck, helps the user get to the root of their problem or negative mental state, and then allows the user to set a goal to move past it. Smaller goals, like making a habit of flossing every night, are covered within the Lift app, where users can track the number of days they accomplish their one small goal.

Other apps, such as Superbetter, use a game-like interface to present healthy challenges and allow the user to overcome mental health “bad guys,” such as laziness or negative self-talk.

Some healthcare groups are even creating custom apps for their patients, says Joseph G. Fanelli, Medical Director for Community Healthcare System Centers for Mental Wellness, whose organization is currently developing several tech tools, including apps.

“These apps are focused on assessing signs and symptoms of illness, on assessing response to treatment, and on enhancing mental wellness,” Fanelli says.

But how effective are independent apps for mental health maintenance?

“For people not dealing with any serious issues in their life and just looking to improve themselves, indeed, ‘there’s an app for that’—many good ones, too!” Says Jean Lubeckis, EAP Therapist with Franciscan Alliance.

“Apps such as Optimism, Inspirational Quotes, Hope Book or Atease, can help someone practice mindfulness, meditation, improve attitude, sleep, or reduce stress,” Lubeckis says.

For those looking for a better quality of life, these apps can be very helpful. However, Lubeckis cautions others to be careful.

“Just because there is an app, doesn't mean it is good or reliable,” Lubeckis says.

For those with more serious mental health goals, Lubeckis suggests using higher-level apps along with other treatment.

“Anyone seeking information, guidance or help regarding mental health issues like anxiety, depression or issues negatively impacting their life, would be wise to seek information from professional apps,” she says. “For instance, there are apps by Web MD, Psych Central, state and federal mental health groups and even the DSM-V. Some apps have been designed by professionals and some are designed to accompany self-help books.

“There are apps focusing on Depression and Anxiety. One has a screening tool called the ‘PH-Q 9’ which many professionals use to evaluate depression,” Lubeckis says. “Hopefully that clarity will provide direction to lead them to the help they need.”

Doctors are also embracing technology as a method of treatment, says Fanelli. “We also incorporate the WII gaming system as a part of our treatment programing, combining physical and mental fitness activities in a comprehensive wellness program.”

In addition to goal-oriented apps, Fanelli says smartphones have made communication between doctors and patients more accessible.

“As a psychiatrist, I have found smartphone technology to have been extremely helpful in communicating more effectively with my patients,” says Fanelli. “I have been able to address their issues much more quickly and efficiently than in the past. Texting alone has enabled me to start new medications and make the kind of crucial changes that can be key to successful treatment.”

But most importantly, Lubeckis advises those seeking treatment to speak with a qualified health care provider rather than relying on independent apps.

“If someone is using smart phone apps for diagnostic or screening purposes, that should be just the first step,” she says. “If the person learns they would benefit from professional assistance, the next step should be to contact a professional.”

Fanelli thinks technology brings a host of new opportunities to the mental health field.

“Rather than depend on technology, I think we are embracing technology as a means to enhance the quality of care we can provide to our patients,” Fanelli says. “Technology will never replace the person-to-person relationship that is the cornerstone of good health care, but technology can certainly provide better tools to make that relationship ever more productive, and that is a very exciting thing.”

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