Study: Smartphone app effective in treating serious mental illness

By Laura Lovett
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A recent study published by Psychiatric Services found that mobile health interventions were as effective in treating patients with serious mental illness compared to an in-person group therapy. 

The study found that participants in the mobile health group were more likely to remain fully engaged in the eight-week study than those receiving traditional care. Researchers also found that satisfaction rates between the two groups were similar, and that the conditions of participants in both groups improved significantly. 

“The mHealth intervention showed superior patient engagement and produced patient satisfaction and clinical and recovery outcomes that were comparable to those from a widely used clinic-based group intervention for illness management,” the authors of the study wrote. 

The study included 163 patients with serious long-term mental illnesses, including schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and depressive disorder. Most of the participants came from a racial minority group. 

Participants were randomly assigned to the traditional clinic-based group intervention, called the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), or to the mobile health intervention group, called FOCUS. 

Patients in the FOCUS group received a smartphone-delivered intervention designed for people with serious mental illnesses, according to a statement. The technology is made up of an app, a clinician dashboard, and support from an mobile health specialist. Patients can access videos, audio clips, or written materials at any time of the day. The system also prompts users to take daily assessments, which are relayed to the specialist.   

Researchers found that 90 percent of participants that received their care through smartphones stayed with the program, compared to 58 percent of patients in the traditional clinic-based intervention group. 

Both groups did show a significant improvement in quality of life. However, patients in the in-person group saw the improvements at three months, whereas participants in the FOCUS group saw the improvements at the end of six months. 

Mental health platforms have become increasingly popular as the world of apps continues to grow. Those apps can range from screening tools to coaching platforms. 

Perhaps the most notable in the space is Pear Therapeutics, a digital therapeutics company with several platforms dedicated to treating mental illnesses. In March, Pear inked a deal with pharma company Novartis to work together on the development of two digital therapeutics, including one for schizophrenia. The company also has a platform for treating addiction. 

Not all mental health apps are designed to treat patients. Some are designed to help patients in their everyday lives. Recently a mental health AI platform, Woebot, was in the news after it landed $8 million in series A funding. Users can access the messaging function on the app — just like using Google Hangouts or Apple’s iMessage, but instead of a person on the other end, it is an AI programmed to help users talk through their mental health using cognitive behavioral therapy principals.