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Mental Health Goes Mobile

How a "Mobile Therapist" Recommends the Right App

More than 20 percent of Americans have significant symptoms of depression and anxiety, but only 20 percent are actively finding treatment and support. In an effort to reach more patients, mental healthcare has moved into the mobile space. In particular, Northwestern Medicine scientists, led by David Mohr, PhD, professor in Preventive Medicine-Behavioral Medicine and director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, hope a new app system will bring help to millions who may be in need.

Intellicare, available through Google Play for Android devices, is more than just an app, though. It’s a suite of 12 interactive mini-apps, each designed by Northwestern Medicine clinicians based on validated techniques of professional therapists. By downloading the main app or the mini-apps individually, anyone who struggles with depression or anxiety can find access to the same skills taught by therapists.

Despite the recent growth of mobile mental health, most support apps are poorly designed and not validated by psychological theory. As a result, most people won’t use the app more than once. Intellicare is designed to keep users engaged, offering a unique and personalized experience.

Feedback Provides Fresh Recommendations

The “mobile therapist,” launched by Northwestern Medicine and funded by the National Institute of Health, uses a recommender system to suggest a mini-app to lift your mood. It may refer someone to “Thought Challenger” if he or she feels overly self-critical, “Worry Knot” after a tense meeting or “Aspire” for feelings of emptiness or meaningless. Drawing from past preferences and voluntary user feedback, Intellicare provides new app suggestions each week to keep things fresh, teach new skills and avoid user boredom.

The recommender system is rare in the world of mental health apps, and as part of a national research study, Northwestern Medicine scientists rely on feedback to make the system better. Users have no obligation to review the app, but the confidential comments are used to build a more effective resource.

People also have the opportunity to enroll in the research study, for which they would receive compensation to provide greater, in-depth feedback and receive access to an Intellicare coach to support their use of the app.