As smartphones have become more ubiquitous, we’ve grown used to carrying our entertainment, work life and social media profiles with us everywhere we go. What if that same ever-present device could be used to treat mental illness like depression and anxiety?
Mental health apps have been around for a while, but experts still aren’t sure just how useful they are. That’s why Seattle-based startup Litesprite asked independent researchers to study data from the beta test of its mental health app and publish the results.
The study — led by Armando Silva Almodovar, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy — found a significant improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms among those who used Litesprite’s game, Sinasprite, for the recommended 6-week course. It also found that users improved their confidence and coping skills over those six weeks.
“The real intent of this first paper was to say: Is there an impact? And try to quantify that,” said Litesprite founder and CEO Swatee Surve, who started the company in 2012 and is a veteran of T-Mobile and Microsoft.
To answer that question, Almodovar looked at the beta test data from Sinasprite. The app is a mobile game that teaches users skills to combat depression and anxiety, based on clinical programs like those patients might encounter during therapy.
When Litesprite handed over their beta test data, 141 people had independently found, downloaded and used the app. Of those, 34 were qualified to be included in the study. All 34 used the app for the recommended six weeks and also filled out pre- and post-usage surveys to measure symptoms, using the same measures that doctors would use in a clinic.
“What’s really unique about this project is that she just put it out there,” Almodovar said of Surve. “She made a product, it was in beta and she put it out there just to see how people would use it in the real world.”
That’s unique because most studies of mental health apps happen in highly-controlled clinical environments that don’t accurately replicate the way most people would find, download and use an app. In academic terms, the users were self-referred, and it turns out those users did see results from using the app.
“We found that there was a significant change in depression after six weeks of use,” Almodovar said. “We found that there was a significant change in anxiety after six weeks of use — a significant improvement. And we found that there was a significant improvement in their confidence and their coping skills.”
The caveat is that all the data was self-reported, meaning there is room for error. The app is also in the early stages of development.
But Almodovar said the improvements he saw were particularly exciting because users weren’t following directions from a doctor or therapist to use the app — they found and used it on their own, indicating that apps like Sinasprite can have an impact even outside the traditional healthcare system.
That could help address the lack of accessible mental healthcare in many parts of the world, including the U.S.
“What I was finding, as I was looking at the mental health care, was how many areas in the U.S. right now are deficient in accessible mental health care,” Almodovar said, noting that mobile apps are a way “to reach beyond geographical, financial limitations of the current system.”