Coping with Depression, There’s an App for That

By Solomon Hammerly

CatlinSpeak  (Portland, Oregon)

With the rising popularity of phone applications designed to help people with daily activities and chores ranging from alarms to recipe books, the concept of apps that provide personal aid that has often been solely offered by human professionals is gradually becoming more acceptable today. Common treatments of depression in particular have evolved since the beginning of this century, and are now becoming more accessible through technology such as smartphones and other devices.

A number of phone apps, rather than functioning purely as “digital therapy,” regulate and capitalize on habits that may potentially lead to depression. Apps such as “Sleep Cycle” and “Health Through Breath” focus on bettering one’s physical well-being through monitoring conditions such as lightest level of their sleep cycle, to timed breathing techniques in order to transition from one breathing stage to the next.

According to a study in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), nearly 80% of Americans with mental health disorders receive no mental health care in any form. Simple iPhone and Android applications like these could potentially allow that significant gap to be reduced by letting people engage in more novel activities to treat conditions such as depression. The focus of the last decade has been on taking specific forms of therapy commonly used to treat depression, and packing them into applications with the same long-term benefits as traditional, doctor delivered variants of mental health assistance.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a practice commonly used to treat depression, anxiety, and in some cases Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rather than trying to aid people by looking back on previous events in life or asking about family members in order to face those struggles, CBT gives patients skills to point out negative mindsets or thought patterns and allows patients to reconstruct these thoughts. Such treatment seeks to aid those with phobias simply through activities that expose them to their fears a few times each day.

This isn’t to say that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has not been scrutinized and questioned previously. As Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist Jay Watts wrote on Mad in America, often the hype around CBT doesn’t draw from enough scientific proof of its effectiveness. She explains, “However, the most persuasive re-storying of CBT — for me, at least — springs from putting aside therapy brands and considering how therapeutic practice actually advances. The most celebrated CBT theorists in the new wave of therapies draw not from science but from their own experience of pain.”

This transition to delivering therapy through technology dates back to about 2001. One of the first training programs to apply CBT was MoodGYM, developed by Australian Psychologists Helen Christensen and her colleague Kathleen Griffiths. This app was eventually adopted by Australia’s national health system in 2009, and spawned several other programs based on MoodGYM that are accessible online. These programs are known as Behavioral Intervention Technologies (B.I.T.s).

From this, it’s clear that even in vastly different areas of the world, B.I.T.s, and their use in technology, are acceptable and likely applicable to those who don’t desire, can’t afford, or are unable to commit to therapy with other people. B.I.T.s have broken the mold in the mental health world during the last fifteen years, but how might they be used on the average student, parent, or teacher’s smartphone?

The slogan “there’s an app for that” almost seems like an afterthought with how many smartphone applications are available for simplistic tasks, and if it’s possible for B.I.T.s such as MoodGYM to be used on a national level, some might believe that transitioning this onto smartphone devices for convenient use would prove a worthy counterpart to human therapy.

However, there’s a degree of novelty and simplicity that needs implementation in order to create an app that can be used in short time spans, while maintaining the same effect and practical use as a B.I.T on a computer screen or machine that one would dedicate longer hours towards using.

Northwestern University’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies has brought together psychologists, physicians, and software engineers to create apps such as “Aspire” in order to point out people’s strengths and values, and “Thought Challenger” which provides people with ways to challenge negative thinking. These apps are highly reminiscent of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

However, David C. Mohr, Director of Northwestern’s Center for BITs is still ambivalent about the use of these technologies as a means to replace regular human therapy. Mohr wrote a column in the New York Times, concluding that, “When implemented correctly… B.I.T.s can significantly broaden the availability of mental health care. The technology, however, should not be greeted as a replacement for more traditional treatments, which are severely under-funded but still necessary for many.”

Though further use and development may still be necessary in order to fully flesh out Behavioral Intervention Technologies and make them useful on a global level, the idea of looking at your phone for therapeutic assistance is becoming a less taboo thought, and may become a more common choice in the future.

Image Credit: Unsplash

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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