Smartphone therapy? Apps can help with mental health, doctors say

Friday, February 10, 2017
Smartphone therapy? Apps can help with mental health, doctors say
We use apps on our phones for just about everything, but can an app make you feel better, sleep more or calm down?

CHICAGO (WPVI) -- We use apps on our phones for just about everything, but can an app make you feel better, sleep more or calm down? The potential for smartphone therapy is enormous, doctors say.

Every year, 20 percent of Americans have symptoms of depression or anxiety, but most do not seek treatment. But whether you're worried, sad or simply need a boost, an app can help.

Northwestern Medicine researchers said apps are emerging as an important part of medicine's future, and are even considered revolutionary for mental health.

In her North Side apartment, Lucy Ingram begins her day on a healthy note. That isn't always easy; she battles bipolar disorder and anxiety.

"When I was depressed, I would get way more depressed. When I was anxious, I would get way more anxious," Ingram said.

Sandy Sheagren of north suburban Glenview understands that feeling. She also has bipolar disorder.

"It just became a matter of not being able to function," Sheagren said.

Both, however, found an app they use on their phones to help. People in the grips of depression often struggle with basic tasks. Apps can be a lifeline, reminding patients to make healthy choices, even encouraging them to get out of bed.

"It has been a game changer in many ways," said Dr. John Zajecka, professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center.

Dr. Zajecka has treated Sheagren for nearly 20 years. A few years ago, she started to use an app called the Wellness Tracker from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. She tracked her overall health and worked closely with Dr. Zajecka.

"Because of the app she has her life back," he said.

Sheagren and Ingram track their overall mood, symptoms and triggers, and lifestyle markers like exercise and sleep, even medication. And they make adjustments.

"I think the 'a-ha moment' was when I realized it was working," Ingram said.

"It's a lot of commitment to always do and keep track of it, and I think that's why the app helps. Because it's much easier to keep track on your phone," Sheagren said.

For Northwestern Medicine researchers, that's the point.

"We want to get those tools into the fabric of people's lives," said Prof. David Mohr, Northwestern Medicine.

Mohr spearheaded Northwestern's development of 13 free apps for depression and anxiety, collectively called Intellcare.

One app called Daily Feats, for example, begins with tasks like "I got out of bed" or "I groomed myself." Accomplishments are tracked on a calendar. Another app called purple Chill helps you unwind.

A nationwide study showed that people who used the Intellicare apps, with a little bit of coaching, improved in eight weeks.

"Their depression dropped substantially. There was a 50 percent drop in the symptom level," Mohr said.

Ingram and Sheagren said they're living proof that the right apps can be life-changing.

"If you're struggling, there is help out there," Ingram said.

"It's a huge difference," said Sheagren.

Since vetting apps is incredibly time consuming, Northwestern is teaming up with Columbia University and IBM Watson, an artificial intelligence computer base. Eventually, a program would search all available apps and make recommendations, kind of like using Netflix.

Northwestern free apps are available on Google Play right now. They're still working on the apps for iPhones.

Click here for more information on Northwestern Intellicare apps.

Click here for more information about the Wellness Tracker from Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.