17 Sep Smartphone App May Help Treat Mental Illness
A new app developed by Tel Aviv University is designed to bring your smartphone to the aid of your therapist. Its creators were motivated by the fact that many people, even those managing serious mental illnesses, have relatively little time with their therapists. During these comparatively limited appointments, it can be difficult for patients to thoroughly explain what is happening with them and for therapists to get a good idea of how their patients’ situations are evolving.
Enter the new smartphone app, which allows therapists to monitor their patients’ progress remotely. The app tracks a variety of activity, including sleeping patterns, communication patterns, vocal patterns and movements. The data tracked by each phone is then sent to remote computers to be processed by advanced algorithms that can detect significant changes in an individual’s daily habits.
Analyzing Behavioral Patterns
Behavioral patterns play a huge role in diagnosing mental illness, and the developers of the new app believe that it can track behavioral information more quickly and more effectively. Dr. Uri Nevo, one of the lead researchers on the development project, gives several examples of practical uses for the app in the press release from Tel Aviv University.
He notes that bipolar disorder begins with manic episodes, and that the start of a manic episode will often feature behavior that could be detected by a smartphone. For example, a patient who usually makes only a few phone calls per day, or sends a few text messages, may suddenly begin making dozens of calls or sending dozens of messages. Another example might be patients experiencing depressive episodes whose phones show that they are sleeping much more than usual and rarely leaving the house.
The intent behind the new app is for the information gathered by the smartphones to be used by therapists to get a better idea of their client’s situation quickly, and use their actual in-person sessions more effectively. It can also provide patients with more independence, freeing them from repeated follow-up visits to clinics in order to evaluate their progress or supervision from family and friends who are concerned that their condition may deteriorate.
New App Raises a Few Concerns
The app may have great potential to help mental health professionals help their patients, but not everyone is entirely optimistic about the idea. In an article for New York Magazine, columnist Jesse Singal raises some questions about the potential future of the new app.
Singal wonders whether patients will feel comfortable being electronically monitored in this way, or whether many of them will consider it an invasion of privacy.
Even though the information will be sent to only a select number of people, and even though the information is intended to further their own treatment, it is still a level of monitoring usually reserved for parolees.
As the app is currently designed, it does not monitor the content of a person’s phone calls and messages. However, the temptation to monitor this content could be significant, given the wealth of information it could provide to therapists. Singal even wonders whether the app will really be effective without such monitoring.
Singal’s biggest concern is that the app could end up being an excuse to grant patients even less face time with their behavioral health providers. With a shortage of mental health care providers in the U.S., and appointment times at a premium, it may be tempting to use the app as a substitute for in-person interaction. If the app information shows that a patient appears to be stable in his or her behavior, therapists may opt to continue interacting with patients remotely until some change is detected.
The app is not yet in its final stage of development, which will likely see it become available to patients and therapists. Before that happens, it may be wise to have a better idea of how it will be incorporated into patient care.
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