Last week the New York Times published an article titled “Feeling Anxious? Soon there will be an app for that” that described recent research attempts to demonstrate the effectiveness of “smartphone therapy apps” on anxiety and depression. Yes, smartphone therapy apps. Just like Angry Birds, one day you may be able to download a therapy app, in the App Store no less.
Now, this idea didn’t strike me as particularly innovative because I, along with some friends, also had discussed this concept in jest. But, as I read the article, I attempted to suspend my immediate cynicism and give the idea a whirl, as an intellectual exercise. The author reports that “the upside is that well-designed apps could reach millions of people who lack the means or interest to engage in traditional therapy and need more than the pop mysticism, soothing thoughts or confidence boosters now in use.” If I repress my understanding of therapy as a relational endeavor that not only hopes to lessen symptoms but also to initiate more meaningful structural change, then yes, I can see the utility in a therapy app. I can imagine myself looking to my phone for some psychological relief when agitated on a crowded bus or anxiously scrambling to and fro classes. But then I thought, don’t I do this any way? I already thwart certain feelings by way of distraction. My phone is the mecca of distraction. Why would I use a therapy app in those situations? I’d rather play Angry Birds.
Maybe I need to think more in line with therapy app researchers to give this concept a proper chance: a therapy app could reach more people and it would cost less money! Ok, so yes more people would be able to afford a therapy app, because unlike seeing an actual psychotherapist, apps usually range from a dollar to twenty dollars. I can’t help but wonder if this is circumventing issues surrounding healthcare coverage. Instead of providing services to individuals who may not be able to pay for mental health care, we give them an app? That just doesn’t seem fair.
The article also reviews promising results from studies from San Diego State University. Nadir Amir, a professor there, conducts experiments whose results seem to suggest: “that about half of people with an anxiety disorder complete a full course (practicing on a computer for about 30 minutes twice a week, for four to six weeks) improve enough that the diagnosis no longer applies.” He’s referring to generalized anxiety disorder. But maybe this is merely illuminating the limitations of the DSM-IV. Anecdotally, I have seen highly stressed individuals in very much stress without meeting criteria for a diagnosis. What exactly are the implications Dr. Amir is attempting to make? The Times also notes that he is a part owner of a company that markets this kind of technology. Interreeresssting!
I suppose I was fit enough for this intellectual exercise. And I’m curious – What do others think?