Technology is often criticised for its bulging intrusion into our lives, but researchers from Northwestern University have developed a collection of 13 clinical apps for depression and anxiety. Collectively, the apps are known as IntelliCare, and research has found that they can reduce anxiety and depression by up to 50%.
Anxiety and depression can hit hard, and too often. More than 20% of people have significant symptoms of anxiety or depression, but only 20% get the treatment they need to manage their symptoms. The good news is that research is finding powerful ways for people to self-support and improve their symptoms without medication or outside intervention.
For some people, medication makes an important difference, but any management of anxiety or depression has to include lifestyle factors that have been proven to strengthen the brain and support mental strong health. Two of the most profoundly important lifestyle factors are mindfulness and exercise. They have enormous potential to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety by changing the structure and function of the brain. When done together, they can reduce the symptoms of depression by up to 40% in two months. And then, there are apps …
‘Using digital tools for mental health is emerging as an important part of our future.’ David Mohr, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
So about these apps – what makes them special?
Clinicians at Northwestern University have developed a ‘suite’ of 13 apps, each based on techniques used by therapists. Each app strengthens a particular skill, and the idea is that users choose one or two apps to focus on each week to really strengthen the skills.
The apps are called IntelliCare, and research has found that they can significantly reduce anxiety and depression to levels that would be comparable to intervention with psychotherapy or antidepressants.
The apps are based on different theories of psychology, and have been designed to be used frequently and briefly, in line with the way most people use a mobile phone (checking emails, texting, looking for a restaurant, making a call).
One of the main challenges facing the developers of the app was to design something that people would stay with and use consistently. Many apps that are created to boost mental health work on one single strategy to improve symptoms, or they have too many features that make the app difficult to use. We humans tend to be fans of novelty and simplicity, so apps that become boring or that are complicated to navigate around can tend to lose people after a few weeks. The designers of IntelliCare took this on board. With thirteen apps in the IntelliCare suite, people have the opportunity to rotate the particular apps they are using to keep a sense of novelty and to reduce the potential for boredom and dropout.
“We designed these apps so they fit easily into people’s lives and could be used as simply as apps to find a restaurant or directions.” David Mohr, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologie, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Let’s talk about the research.
The study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. 96 people participated in the study (age 27-50). All had elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety. 82 had depression, 82 had anxiety, and 63 had both anxiety and depression.
95% of the participants downloaded five or more of the IntelliCare apps. By the end of the study, participants reported about a 50% decrease in their depression and anxiety symptoms.
By the end of the treatment, of the people who had depression:
- 37% met the criteria for full remission or no symptoms for depression,
- 40% had only mild symptoms, and
- 22% continued to need treatment.
And the ones who had anxiety, by the end of treatment:
- 42% met the criteria for full remission or no symptoms,
- 45% had only mild symptoms, and
- 14% continued to need treatment.
Meet the IntelliCare apps for depression and anxiety …
The apps are available for free from the Google Play Store (find them here). Here’s a rundown on each individual app:
- Intellicare Hub: The control tower that helps you to manage and personalise the IntelliCare apps.
- Aspire: Helps to identify the values that are important to you and the actions that can help you live according to those values. Helps to track those actions during the day to add purpose and increase satisfaction.
- Boost Me: Encourages you to schedule activities that lift you when your mood drops. Keeps track of activities that make you feel good.
- Day to Day: Tips, tricks and info to improve mood. Learn how to nurture gratitude, activate pleasure, increase connectedness – and plenty of other things that make life lovely.
- Daily Feats: designed for motivation and to increase life satisfaction by adding rewarding activities into your day.
- Social Force: Helps to firm up your tribe.
- My Mantra: Helps you to find the words that will lift you and motivate you. Create mantras that motivate you and highlight strengths and values.
- Thought Challenger: Helps with the thoughts that dig in and cause trouble – the head hogs that exaggerate the negative, bring you down, and persuade you to be too tough on yourself.
- iCope: Lets you send yourself messages in your own words to help get you through the tough stuff.
- Purple Chill: Audio recordings to help you unwind, de-stress and worry less. Teaches relaxation and mindfulness exercises.
- MoveMe: Helps with exercises to boost your mood. Access to exercise videos and lessons to help you stay motivated exercise. Just like a coach in your pocket.
- Slumber Time: For peaceful zzz’s – sleep diaries, bedtime checklist to make sure your mind is primed for sleep, audio recordings to get you relaxed. Oh, and an alarm clock.
- Worry Knot: Helps you to ease up on worrying with lessons, daily tips, distractions and a worry management tool to deal with specific problems that won’t budge. Helps with ‘tangled thinking’ and keeps you on track with progress stats.
The IntelliCare algorithm suggests new apps each week to keep things fresh and avoid the experience becoming stale.
We now have evidence these approaches will likely work. They are designed to teach many of the same skills therapists teach patients. Different apps are expected to work for different people. The goal is to find what’s right for you. David Mohr
Depression and anxiety have a way of stealing people’s personal power and putting helplessness and disempowerment in their place. The truth is that people with depression and anxiety are strong and resourceful – they have to be to live their lives and function day to day with symptoms that swipe the way depression and anxiety do. Now technology is finding ways to help people use that strength and resourcefulness and find a way through.
UPDATE: The developers of Intellicare have advised me that they are currently beta testing the first iOS app (Daily Feats). They are hoping to release the IntelliCare iOS apps one by one over the next year. Great news for all iPhone users! I will post updates as I receive them.
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