People get happy when they receive texts from loved ones and they laugh at funny Snapchats from friends. Many mobile apps already promote happiness, but apps that are specifically designed to improve mental health are rapidly growing in popularity. Although these apps have the potential to revolutionize the way therapeutic interventions are delivered, Pablo Paredes, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Institute of Design, warns that many of the apps on the market are ineffective, difficult to use, or both. “There is still a chasm between social scientists and engineers,” Paredes notes. For apps to effectively improve mental health, social scientists and engineers need to collaborate and merge their ideas together. Only then will it be possible to develop the kinds of innovative technologies that can really impact mental health.
Fortunately, researchers at UC Berkeley are building collaborations to develop an array of apps that actually work. Some of these apps focus on treating serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, and others aim to improve mental health more generally. For example, Tim Campellone, a graduate student in the psychology department, is a contributor to Personalized Real-time Intervention for Motivational Enhancement (PRIME), a neuroscience-based app for people with schizophrenia. Because research has linked schizophrenia to deficits in social functioning, PRIME aims to improve social goals, support, and interactions. “Mobile interventions can deliver the benefits of therapy along with the freedom and convenience that only a mobile device can provide,” states Campellone.
Another group on campus led by Adrien Aguilera, a faculty member in the School of Social Welfare, is developing a web-based app to improve the effectiveness of therapy for people with depression. This app sends automated text message reminders and therapy tips for clients to use in everyday life. Aguilera hopes that these text messages will increase the likelihood that people will attend therapy and help them apply the skills developed in therapy to real world contexts.
Similarly, Aaron Fisher, a faculty member in the Department of Psychology, leads a project focused on improving the effectiveness of therapy for people with anxiety. “If you can identify what symptoms drive everything else, you can make more effective and efficient treatments,” Fisher says. To meet this need, the app sends daily automated messages that ask people to report on their experiences and symptoms. This data is then used to determine which experiences contribute most to anxiety symptoms and, therefore, what experiences need to be targeted most in therapy.
In addition to targeting major mental illnesses, research teams at UC Berkeley aim to use mobile technology to improve more general mental health and well-being. Sid Feygin, a graduate student in civil engineering, is working with fellow graduate students to develop an app that lets users report their mood on two separate scales—one that ranges from upset to peaceful and one that ranges from enthusiastic to sad. Feygin hopes to further develop this app to analyze text messaging patterns so that people can better understand how their text messaging habits affect their mood. When people understand how their behavior affects their mood, they can make the changes necessary for improved mental health. In another project, Paredes, with support from colleagues at the UC Berkeley Institute of Design, is developing an algorithm that automatically learns from people’s data usage to recommend online activities that are likely to be the most effective at that particular time for that particular person. By using an algorithm instead of assessing each person’s experience individually, this app can make interventions more effective and less labor intensive.
Although these projects provide examples of how UC Berkeley has formed collaborations to improve mental health with technology, further collaboration is needed for greater innovation. A campus center intended to support data-intensive endeavors in the social sciences, called the D-lab, is poised to promote this type of interdisciplinary collaboration. Staff at the D-lab plan to launch a website soon to provide useful resources for developing mental health apps. In a society where the newest danger to mental health, termed “fear of missing out,” was born from social media and hand-held Internet access, UC Berkeley is hard at work turning these very same platforms into tools that can improve mental health.
Tchiki Davis is a graduate student in psychology.