11 April 2012

Text messages help with depression

Texting often gets a bad rap for contributing high-risk behaviour such as reckless driving. But it may have a positive side for people who feel stressed, isolated and alone.


Text messaging often gets a bad rap for contributing to illiteracy and high-risk behaviour such as reckless driving. But a social welfare professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has found an upside to texting, especially for people who feel stressed out, isolated and alone.

Adrian Aguilera, a clinical psychologist who treats many low-income people for depression and other mental disorders, said his patients report feeling more connected and cared for when they receive text messages asking them to track their moods, reflect on positive interactions, and take their prescribed medications.

“When I was in a difficult situation and I received a message, I felt much better. I felt cared for and supported. My mood even improved,” reported one patient in Aguilera’s cognitive behaviour therapy group.

How the research was done

The project began in 2010 when Aguilera developed a customised “Short Message Service (SMS)” intervention programme, with the help of UCSF psychologist Ricardo Munoz,  in which Aguilera’s patients were sent automated text messages prompting them to think and reply about their moods and responses to positive and negative daily interactions.

 The psychologists published the results of the project in the journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

“We are harnessing a technology that people use in their everyday lives to improve mental health in low-income, under-served communities,” said Aguilera.

Texting helps poorer communities

Aguilera came up with the texting idea when he realised that many of his patients had difficulty applying the skills they learned in therapy to their daily lives, possibly because of the many stressors they routinely faced. They could not afford laptops, electronic tablets or smart phones, but most had a basic cellular phone and a prepaid monthly plan.

“The people I wanted to impact directly didn’t have as much access to computers and the Internet,” Aguilera said. “So I thought about using mobile phones to send text messages to remind them to practise the skills covered in therapy sessions.”

The feedback from patients offers new insight into the human need for regular contact or check-ins for mental health professionals, even if only through automated technology, Aguilera said.

While the text-messaging sessions are designed to last only a certain number of weeks, about 75% of the patients requested that they continue receiving the messages. When the programme stopped for a week due to technical problems, some really noticed the difference.

“When it stopped, I missed it,” the patient reported. “My life is so crazy, I need a reminder to think about how I feel."

(EurekAlert, April 2012)

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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