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How Your Cell Phone Could Help Treat Depression

Sergey Nivens

Public health statistics show that as much as20% of the US population will deal with clinical depression at some point in their lives, making it one of the most common mental health disorders.  Even if you don’t suffer from it, there’s a good chance that a friend or family member will be affected.

Despite the prevalence of depression, the associated stigma often stops people from seeking help. Researchers at Wisconsin’s Rogers Behavioral Health are working to alleviate that problem through developing a mobile application that can help treat a patient’s depressive symptoms. It’s similar to the app health researchers there created and tested to treat Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

READ: Local Researcher Works to Make OCD Treatment More Accessible

"Often times people have been hesitant to seek help for depression," says Dr. Jerry Halverson, Chief Medical Officer at Rogers Behavioral Health. "Depression historically had been looked at as a weakness, something you don't talk about. And I would say that has really made a big change over the past 10-15 years."

Dr. Halverson notes that depression is typically treated through medication and psychotherapy, catered to each individual's needs. Although the diagnosis and treatments have advanced significantly, he says stigma continues to be a major barrier.

This is where the Rogers Behavioral Health’s clinical research study for adults with major depressive disorder, or MDD, plays a crucial role, Dr. Brad Riemann says. He's the Chief Clinical Officer and Clinical Director of the Rogers OCD Center.

"There's very effective treatment for OCD and depression, but not everybody has geographic access to it, not everybody has financial access to it. And so by ultimately putting something on an app, on a phone where people could do it in the privacy of their own home, at their convenience, and presumably at a much lower cost - that's a real win situation," he explains.

Depression can make it difficult for people to focus on the positive and is often associated with a "black cloud" mentality. The application seeks to change the way people see the cues in their lives with a technique called interpretation retraining, Dr. Riemann explains.

"The app really is designed to train people to kind of re-interpret their world in a more positive way, but I think just as importantly in a more accurate way," he notes.

Users are presented with sentences in the app that are by design vague and open to interpretation. Dr. Riemann says that someone who is depressed naturally interprets these vague sentences as negative. Through feedback and questions shared with the participant, people can learn to retrain their interpretation, he explains.

"The app doesn't get at the emotions of depression directly, it's really targeting this bias," explains Dr. Halverson. "By shutting that down or at least weakening it to a significant degree that results then in the depression symptom reduction that we see."

He adds that the app development is not because there is a lack of effective treatments, but because it is a unique way to supplement what is already offered.

Dr. Riemann says that he believes it will be a natural transition for people to turn to their phones for both their physical and mental health, given the predominance of personal technology.

"There's evidence to suggest that people are comfortable disclosing things to machines that they're not as comfortable disclosing to human beings - interestingly again, that's stigma," he says. "We're certainly trying to reduce stigma. I think we've come a long way, but we've got a long way to go. And if there's a young person who might be inclined to do something like this who's refusing, say for example, to go see a psychiatrist, then that's a good thing."

If you are interested in participating in this clinical research study, you can contact Rogers Memorial Hospital at (414) 865-2600 or go to rogersbh.org/research.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.