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Mobile Help for Better Mental Health — Embracing the Future

By Lindsey Getz

Websites and mobile app technologies are increasingly useful tools in the behavioral health field, especially for military families. The Department of Defense is utilizing these tools to enhance the psychological and emotional well-being of active military members, their families, and veterans through the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, also known as T2. The creation and ongoing development of specialized websites and mobile applications is generating a number of benefits for users.

Mobile Health Possibilities
One reason mobile technology can be particularly beneficial to military families considering treatment or desiring information on mental health conditions such as PTSD is that it reduces any stigma associated with seeking help. Fear, shame, and embarrassment can be associated with seeking mental health treatment but utilizing mobile health tools such as a mobile app or a website can allow the individual to obtain information privately. It can also help these individuals prepare for seeking professional help.

“When someone is considering addressing something that may be a problem they often go through the process in stages and it is very important not to overwhelm the person at any one stage,” says David Cooper, PsyD, psychologist and mobile application project leader for T2. “We’ve all had that experience of thinking about making a change but taking a light approach can help ease them into the idea. Giving them information and letting them look it over and come to terms with it on their own can often be the best thing in getting the person ready to move forward.”

Cooper says mobile apps are a form of information that many people feel comfortable with because they can do it on their own time and their own terms. They can also look at the app anytime, so it’s there when they need it—around the clock. Breathe2Relax, which can guide users through hands-on diaphragmatic breathing exercises to reduce stress, is an example of a mobile app tool that is portable and available 24/7.

“This app teaches a pretty standard tool—diaphragmatic breathing—to relieve anxiety,” says Cooper. “But it used to be something we had to teach ourselves. Now the individual can learn the technique without the therapist coaching them through it. That can be a very useful tool before they even walk in the door.”

T2 Mood Tracker is another mobile app that Cooper says is convenient for the patient and the clinician. It helps monitor and track emotional experiences over a period of days, weeks, and months. “It’s customizable and easy to enter data,” says Cooper. “It’s basically taking the place of a mood diary where the individual had to carry around a pencil and paper. This is much more efficient.”

Helping the Whole Family
Mobile health tools are particularly beneficial for members of military families. Kids are increasingly utilizing the Internet and mobile apps so this is a great way for adults to meet them at their level. Kelly Blasko, PsyD, also a psychologist at T2, has worked specifically with military families and looked at providing technology solutions to help them address common problems.

“One thing I’ve found is that moving is a constant in the military culture,” Blasko says. “The average number of moves for a military child by the time they’re in high school is six to nine. So with the help of the Sesame Workshop we created ‘The Big Moving Adventure,’ a mobile app that can certainly be used by social workers, but also parents at home.”

The Big Moving Adventure helps kids address the exciting aspects as well as the stressors associated with a move. Since its formal release to app stores, it’s been featured as one of the best apps for children ages 5 and younger on iTunes and downloaded more than 200,000 times. The number of uses on that app is more than 2 million, averaging 10 sessions per download. Blasko says that among its purposes, the app can help kids with saying goodbye and with the physical movement of their belongings.

“It might not seem like the most important thing to an adult, but for a kid, making sure that all their toys make it to their new home is so important,” Blasko says. “The app talks to kids about packing up their toys and making the move. It is very kid-centric but it also provides a vehicle for the parents to talk to them about their situation, making it helpful for everyone.”

Blasko also led the development of a website that meets kids at their level. The site, www.militarykidsconnect.org, has sections for kids, tweens, and teens, and helps them cope with stress due to frequent moves, a deployed parent, or a loved one with PTSD or other issues related to military duty. The website even goes a step farther and has resources for parents. Under the “Educators as Influencers“ page, there is information specifically directed to teachers and counselors who come into contact with kids during their school day.

“When we conceived the idea for the website, we knew we wanted our main users to be children and adolescents,” Blasko says. “But we know that educators also have a big influence and that it’s important they understand the military culture so that they can better serve these kids. Research documents that the anxiety military children can be under can affect academic performance. It’s important that we’re also educating the educators. The truth is that a lot of teachers don’t understand what military children are actually going through.”

Using Technology Together
Working together is part of the solution to help military personnel and their families deal with the stressors they face. It takes a team effort and these technology tools can provide great assistance. “Social workers in particular understand how much the support system and the environmental influences can impact an individual,” Blasko says. “We all have to work together to promote wellbeing for military children and their families. These apps can be used by that whole support system.”

“Technology is definitely part of the support system for kids today,” adds Cooper. “Peer-to-peer interaction is happening online. Kids are finding relief from anxiety with video games or the Internet. So it’s important for us as a field to become more savvy about how technology is already integrated into their lives.”

It’s the way the field is moving in general, says Cooper. Although many clinicians within the behavioral health field who have been used to face-to-face contact have fears about where technology is going, Cooper says that these are positive changes that should be embraced. “Change is always frightening to some degree,” Cooper says. “While technology is going to change how we do business, it’s not in the way that people are afraid of. Think of it in terms of the telephone. People used to have to use a letter to contact their provider but then the telephone allowed them to call. That surely created some fears at the time. So I understand the resistance but the truth is that we’re lagging behind.”

Cooper says that the days of paper handouts and asking people to write down notes is going by the wayside. “These technology tools have great benefits to both the individual but also to the provider,” Cooper says. “It only makes sense that we begin to embrace them.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.