Smartphone apps are found to reduce depression, anxiety

Northwestern’s IntelliCare as effective as psychotherapy and antidepressants, researchers find.

A suite of smartphone apps developed by Northwestern Medicine has successfully reduced depression and anxiety symptoms in study participants by 50 percent, an efficacy rate similar to that typically achieved through psychotherapy or antidepressant medication.

That’s the finding of a research study funded by the National Institutes of Health and recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Northwestern’s IntelliCare is a suite of 13 apps that, when used together, target common causes of depression and anxiety, such as sleep problems, social isolation, lack of activity and obsessive thinking.

“We saw that depression and anxiety rates dropped by about half, which is equivalent to what we see with most forms of psychotherapy and with medications,” says Emily Lattie, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University.

The study included 96 participants who had access to the IntelliCare apps and received eight weeks of coaching to help with their use. Coaching included an initial phone call plus two or three text messages per week over the eight weeks of the study. An algorithm recommended new apps each week to help participants learn different skills and strategies.

Most of the study’s participants used the apps on their smartphones as many as three or four times per day, or an average of 195 times total. At the same time, the average length of use for each app was less than one minute, according Lattie. “This is a pretty low time commitment,” she says. “There’s not a lot reading or content in these apps. It’s really prompts to do things differently.”

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Although more than 20 percent of Americans experience significant symptoms of anxiety and depression annually, Lattie notes that the vast majority of those with mental health problems do not get treatment.

“There are a lot of barriers to treatment, including cost, availability and people being uncomfortable with traditional treatment methods,” she says. However, with more than 70 percent of Americans currently having smartphones, Lattie believes the IntelliCare apps can make effective solutions more accessible to consumers.

“The different apps focus on different strategies so that people can pick and choose what is helpful for them, as well as get recommendations based on their past use of the apps so they can continue to find new strategies that can be beneficial,” says Lattie, adding that the apps were designed by Northwestern clinicians and based on validated techniques used by therapists.

Among the 13 apps developed at Northwestern’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies are:
  • Daily Feats: designed to motivate people to add worthwhile and rewarding activities into their day to increase overall satisfaction in life.
  • Purple Chill: meant to help users unwind with audio recordings that guide them through exercises to de-stress and worry less.
  • Slumber Time: designed to ease people into a good night’s rest.
  • My Mantra: intended to help users create motivating mantras to highlight their strengths and values.
Individual apps or the entire IntelliCare suite can be downloaded for free from the Google Play online store. According to Lattie, the apps will also be available online later this year at the iTunes Store.

She adds that a larger randomized control trial funded by NIH has been launched that will include 300 participants, with a control arm. In that trial, some participants will get coaching and app recommendations based on past use while others will not.

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