Health IT can enhance mental healthcare through smartphone apps

Healthcare IT Mental Health Apps Smartphone

A lot has been written, said and reported about health information technology over the past few years, but more often than not its locus has been physical health, rather than mental or behavioral. However, as imperative as treating patients with chronic disease and streamlining the paperwork in doctors practices is, the ways that mental and behavioral healthcare benefit from health IT shouldn’t fall by the wayside.

“Health IT is being increasingly recognized as an effective way of reaching people who are really hard to reach,” Theresa Mulvihill, chief operating officer of ORCAS, a health technology company based in Eugene, Ore., told Healthcare IT News.

And Mulvihill wants to look beyond just mental health EHR.

The issue, as Mulvihill outlined, is that as far as doctors have come in treating mental illness and as much progress as society itself has made in recognizing and destigmatizing it, there’s still work to be done – and too often, those dealing with mental illness are not comfortable seeking help. As Mulvihill sees it, sometimes technology is just easier to interact with.

Helping with apps
Along that line of thought, Mulvihill noted that there are three primary benefits that a smartphone or tablet mobile app for mental health can offer both caregivers and patients.

The first is an app’s immediacy. Doctors can be called in an emergency, but a mental health app can literally be opened anytime a smartphone or tablet are running.

The second advantage apps offer are in daily coaching. Most mental health patients don’t visit doctors on a daily basis, but an app can be there to talk individuals through hour-by-hour tasks, whether that’s taking medication or remembering to schedule meditation time. It’s an excellent way to encourage patients to build new, healthier habits, as well.

Third, a potential support network that gets patients the human-to-human help they need. Mulvihill observed that IT is often used to help screen patients for depression, but advancing technology could lead to online hubs that connect patients with mental health counselors. When patients and counselors are matched, support can be offered, either online, by email or by telephone.

Outside the realms of traditional therapy
While Mulvihill and other pioneers in Mental Health software are focused on a new breed of health apps, smartphone and tablet that sooth or relax individuals aren’t new. And there are a number of apps that target mental health conditions in unique ways.

The Boston Globe recently featured a group of apps, all of which helped individuals dealing with mental health conditions, but in very different ways. For instance, “Treasure of Bell Island,” developed by Blue Marble Gaming Co., looks like a fairly classic adventure game, filled with puzzles and treasure hunting. But it’s also designed for traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress order rehabilitation, and The Globe noted that it’s commonly played by Army veterans.

One of the commonalities among three of the five apps featured by The Globe is an attempt to engaged adolescents and teens. Considering the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets among young people, this makes a compelling argument for apps and cleverly designed health IT as a tool for treating depression or anxiety in kids and teens.

Taking on bullying
Adolescent mental health and bullying are intrinsically tied, especially in schools. However, as widespread as it is, bullying often goes unreported.

In response to this, earlier this year, the San Antonio Independent Schools District in Texas launched a pilot program via the Stop Bullies mobile app. This app allowed middle school students in the participating school to use their phones in order to anonymously report incidents of bullying. According to the principal of Irving Middle School, Michael Jordan, the decision was a proactive move to give students another option beyond talking to a school educator or administrator face to face.

Like Mulvihill’s observation about adult mental health patients, sometimes it’s easier to speak with technology than with another human being. This may be even more applicable in generations that have grown up with smartphones and the Internet.

Students were shown how to download the app during a school assembly. It could then be used to send a real-time message, text, image or video to a secured dashboard. A push notification would then immediately notify Irving administrators, who could then investigate.

The pilot program was funded by a local network of citizens, community organizations and businesses, known as The Health Collaborative. The community group’s goal was to both reduce the incidences of bullying in schools as well as the stigma associated with youth mental health.

It may surprise some, but in many ways, students are the epitome of the “people who are really hard to reach” that Mulvihill spoke about. Many are reticent to come forward after being bullied or witnessing another adolescent being bullied. Luckily, technology may offer the answer, stepping in as a mediator to bridge the gap.