People suffering from anxiety or depression have a new resource available in the form of new technology, according to a research study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The study says a group of apps, usable on most smartphones, achieved significant improvements in the mental health of primary care patients.
Dr. Carolyn Greene, an associate professor at UAMS and the project's lead scientist, says the goal was to provide the public with something effective and easy to use.
"It's not one of these interventions that they have to spend hours a day and it's really rigid. This works with how people actually use their phones – you do a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there. If you're hitting it every day and you're doing these little bite size interventions, it adds up to something that's really powerful."
The collection of apps, known collectively as IntelliCare, was developed as part of a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Greene says one of the unique aspects of this approach is the use of multiple apps, each focused on one strategy for addressing depression or anxiety based on cognitive behavior therapy practices. The apps include: Worry Knot, Daily Feats, Thought Challenge, Day to Day, and My Mantra. Participants were monitored as they used the apps over an 8-week period.
"We had 146 patients, all adult primary care patients and they had a dramatic reduction in depression and anxiety, really sort of comparable to what you find in a traditional psychotherapy study," Greene said.
According to the report published on the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry website in May, follow-ups with participants showed positive results were sustained even after the research study was complete. Greene says this is particularly good news for places like Arkansas.
"In these flyover states where we have shortages of mental health specialists, we're less likely to be engaging in some of the more innovative technologies. Arkansas is a highly rural place; it's a highly underserved place. The ratio health care providers, especially mental health providers to individuals who need it is really a problem here."
Greene says the free apps have the potential to be a valuable tool both for primary care physicians.
"The reason why this study is getting so much attention and why it's important is not just that there's these apps that can really help people. That is true, but that's not necessarily that ground-breaking. The thing that's really ground-breaking about this is it solves an important problem we're facing in primary care where the majority of people who suffer from anxiety and depression, they go to their primary care provider and they're not necessarily getting any help. They're not mental health specialists in primary care. The primary care staff is overwhelmed with all the other things they're trying to do for their patient."
The apps were developed with underserved populations in mind, including those with low literacy, or older people who lack confidence with using technology.
"We never want to say that an app is a replacement for treatment for people who really need it," Greene points out. "But we know that this is something that can help people in their lives. And it can help people who maybe don't have other options for treatment."
Recent surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau show that nearly one in three Arkansans have experienced symptoms of anxiety as result of the coronavirus pandemic.