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Smartphone apps can help young people with mental health

Photo: Smartphone apps can help young people with mental health
Apps can be helpful for teenagers and young adults suffering from mental illness due to their frequent use of technology as a means of communication, new research has found.

The apps can be useful as a way to engage people who may be unwilling or unable to attend face-to-face therapy, and they can also provide support in between sessions.

But finding the right one can be tricky.

As part of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and in consultation with ReachOut.com -  Australia’s leading online mental health organisation for young people and their parents - a team led by  Flinders University developed the Toolbox.
The online service for young people recommends high-quality apps for improving mental health, including physical activity, mood, sleep or social relationships based on their personal goals.

“There are so many health-related mobile apps easily available and young people struggle to find those that are of high quality and might work best for them,” says research leader Associate Professor Niranjan Bidargaddi from Flinders University School of Medicine.

“By developing the Toolbox, we were able to help young people find what we think are the best apps out there,” he says.

More than 380 young people from age 16 to 25 took part in this study and were randomly assigned to either a group that used the Toolbox and apps, or to a wait list.

Participants were asked to download and use the recommended apps for a period of four weeks, as well as to regularly monitor their mood, energy, sleep and rest through an online study tool.

The study found that using high-quality recommended apps did not improve wellbeing after four weeks when measured using conventional questionnaires. However, the combination of using the apps and regularly monitoring mood, energy and sleep produced better outcomes than using monitoring alone.

Although these apps may constitute an enormous untapped public health resource, very little is known about who is using them and how effective they are.

ReachOut chief executive Jono Nicholas says young people are keen to use smartphone apps to address their mental health and wellbeing, even though many app developers do not take steps to ensure the apps work. 

“We responded to that as a first step by developing the Toolbox, which recommends apps to young people based on their individual goals that have been reviewed by mental health professionals,” Mr Nicolas says.  

“This research lays the foundations for finding approaches that help young people to navigate through the wide range of apps available.

“Now more research is needed to better understand how apps can be used more effectively.”

The latest study was the first to evaluate the efficacy of readily available mobile apps for health. Key findings were:
  • Apps are not enough for increasing wellbeing
  • The two main challenges for young people are: quality of apps often not good, hard to tell which ones are; and not all apps work for everyone, so finding the right app is hard
  • The new Toolbox available online via ReachOut aims to overcome these challenges, provide a  list of high-quality apps and help young people to best achieve their goals
  • Results show wellbeing was not improved in study
  • Decline in mood and other parameters was halted in those in intervention group who used online monitoring
The app, developed by Australian and UK researchers, is freely available at the ReachOut.com site: http://au.reachout.com/sites/thetoolbox

N. Bidargaddi, P. Musiat, M. Winsall, G. Vogl, V. Blake, S. Quinn, S. Orlowski, G. Antezana, G. Schrader "Efficacy of a web-based guided recommendation service for a curated list of readily available mental health and wellbeing mobile apps for young people: Randomised Controlled Trial” (2017) published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research

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