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Anxiety? Stress? New Apps Offer Mobile Phone As Therapist

Just as summer approaches and therapists are planning their Cape vacations — leaving patients even more anxious and overwrought — here comes news that several mobile phone apps are being developed to treat people with mental health problems.

According to NPR's Michelle Trudeau, mobile phone interventions to treat a range of disorders, from anxiety and smoking addiction to schizophrenia relapse and everyday stress, are now being tested. Trudeau reports:

Dr. Margaret Morris, a clinical psychologist working at Intel Corp., is designing a cell phone app to help manage stress in everyday life, in order to improve mental health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Morris calls the app she's developing "Mobile Therapy," and it can be downloaded onto most cell phones.

Here's how it works: Throughout the day at random times, a mood map pops up on the phone's screen. "People drag a little red dot around that screen with their finger to indicate their current mood," Morris says. In addition to reporting on mood, a patient can chart their energy levels, sleep patterns and activities, the food they've eaten and more.

Based on all that information, she says, "the phone app offers therapeutic exercises. These range from breathing visualizations to progressive muscle relaxation," to useful ways to disengage from a stressful situation.

The information captured on the app can later be charted, printed out and reviewed. The idea is that the person can look at a whole week of mood data to see if there are any connections between one's mood and other factors happening in one's life and record it into the app.

And, Trudeau says, a new app for adults with severe depression is being developed by Judy Callan, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, in collaboration with computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University:

Callan describes how a typical patient might use it: "Say a patient starts therapy and they're really depressed and they can hardly get out of bed. One of their homework assignments might be to, each day, just make the bed." Once the patient has successfully accomplished that task, the homework on the cell phone app will change, prompting and coaching the patient to take the next step.

Thus this app, like the other mental health apps, expands the hour-a-week therapy session into a 24-7 mobile therapist. Callan hopes to adapt her phone app to be used in anxiety, phobias, eating disorders and other mental health programs.

This program aired on May 24, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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