Mobile App Aids in Battle Against Mental Illness

Few things are as seemingly low-tech as psychological therapy. In most cases, a counselor sits in a room with a patient and addresses problems and concerns.

However, researchers are discovering that therapy sessions alone are not enough to prevent negative outcomes, including suicide. Today, there is one suicide in the United States about every 13 minutes.

“Unfortunately, the therapist cannot be with the person at times when they sometimes need attention the most,” points out David Putrino, director of telemedicine and virtual rehabilitation at Burke Medical Research Institute and an assistant professor of rehabilitation at Weill Cornell Medical College.

One group believes that it has found a solution. The TelePsych Alliance, a collaborative partnership of New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College, Burke Medical Research Institute and Interlecta Mobile Innovations, has introduced a new Android app (an iPhone app is in the works) that makes it possible for individuals at risk of depression and suicide to access self-driven treatment or professional help on a 24/7 basis.

“It extends the reach of the professional and enhances the therapeutic process,” says Putrino, a co-developer of the platform.

The app, MindME, was introduced last June. It doesn’t replace a therapist. Instead, it harnesses artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioral therapy methods that work in conjunction with the psychologist.  

For example, if an individual is feeling particularly down or experiencing suicidal thoughts, the app can aid in diffusing the emotions or can get help, if necessary. It might offer the person something as simple as connecting to a favorite song and then returning to the app for feedback. I can also initiate a video session with the person’s therapist. And it has a built-in panic button for immediate attention.

“The app initiates a series of questions and, based on the responses, it will direct the person to where they can get help,” Putrino explains.

The Cloud Provides Real-Time Connectivity

The TelePsych Alliance tapped Genband’s Kandy cloud communications platform to support real-time connectivity, including videoconferencing. The system relies on the Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) API to create a seamless and powerful experience. WebRTC supports browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat and peer-to-peer file sharing without the need for internal or external plug-ins.

MindME is also designed to work with other apps and tools. This might include yoga or deep breathing videos, Netflix movies, music or games such as Candy Crush. MindME also includes a feature that allows the therapist to check on the patient multiple times each day.

The platform has so far been used at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College, but TelePsych Alliance is rolling MindME out through private app stores available to psychologists and other mental health professionals. Researchers are also using the data collected through the app to understand behavior better and improve therapy techniques.

“We’re plugging the data into an analytical layer that will help us with predictive diagnostics,” reports Frank Fleming, managing director at Interlecta Innovations, a mobile consulting partner.

Over the next few years, the TelePsych Alliance aims to introduce other remote therapy programs that address additional psychiatric conditions, including anxiety and PTSD. “This is an extremely personalized approach that provides real benefits,” Putrino says. “It addresses a huge problem in our society.”


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