Researchers put smartphones to work treating mental illness

Major depression can be challenging to treat, in part because so much depends on what happens after the patient leaves the doctor or therapist's office. Researchers at Northwestern University are testing whether smartphones could be used as intervention tools to fill that gap in care.

In the recent pilot study, the researchers developed Mobilyze, an app that used nearly 40 phone sensor values, such as the global positioning system, ambient light and recent calls. The app also asked patients to keep a mood rating diary, and used data from the sensors and the diary to come up with a predictive model of the patient's mood.

David Mohr, the psychologist who headed the Mobilyze development team, said the app would then prompt patients to take action, based on its predictive model.

"If the system sees that you've been sitting at home for four hours on Saturday morning, it knows that, historically, this leads to depressed feelings later in the day," Mohr recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Then it will send you a text message with that observation, and perhaps suggest that you call a friend."

The pilot study involved only eight participants with a major depressive diagnosis; seven completed the study.

Still, the results were promising. The participants were satisfied with the app and improved significantly on self-reported symptoms. Scores dropped by more than 50 percent on several standard depression and anxiety surveys, and the app's ability to predict mood triggers--such as location or social contacts--proved fairly accurate, according to the study, which recently was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Of course, the goal isn't to replace mental health care professionals, but rather, supplement them. Health data shows there are 60 million people in the U.S. with mental health problems, and potentially this technology could help those who are under-treated and underserved, Mohr said.

Questions remain as to whether mental health apps could work long-term in real world conditions. Patients in the study received substantial report, including a tutorial on using the devices and app, as well as prompts from live coaches reminding them to use the app. They also were motivated enough to participate in a pilot study, whereas in real life, seriously depressed patients may not have the energy or motivation to use the tool, Mohr pointed out.

A larger trial will start this summer, funded in part by a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

This isn't the only effort to use smart phones as a treatment tool in mental health. PTSD Coach is an app for post-traumatic stress disorder, developed by the Veteran Affairs' National Center for PTSD and the Department of Defense's National Center for Telehealth and Technology.

To learn more:
- check out this JMIR article
- read this blog post from The Chronicle of Higher Education
- here's a PsychCentral post on Mobilyze