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Mental Health in a Cell Phone App

Soon you can diagnose and treat depression and anxiety with your phone.

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Move over Angry Birds, now there are apps designed to help people with depression and social anxiety. If effective, they could keep you breathing easy in between therapist visits. While not intended to replace professional consultations, these apps could alleviate some of your everyday stress…or make you aware of conditions you never knew you had. Northwestern University’s school of medicine is testing a smartphone app called Mobilyze! that can tell if you are at risk for depression. The app continuously gathers information from the phone about your location, activity level and social interactions. If you stop doing the activities that you find enjoyable—such as meeting with friends or going out on Saturday—the app can remind you. People who are depressed tend to avoid positive activities, and doing them again can improve their mood. Another app under development at Harvard University provides people with social anxiety a way to reduce some of the stress that comes from being in social situations. The app shows users two faces—one neutral and one hostile. Users then have to push a button to identify a letter that appears on the screen. The letter is meant to distract the user from the hostile face. People with social anxiety tend to fixate on negative or angry faces in a crowd. By redirecting their minds, the app interrupts the negative emotions that usually follow. People using the app reported lower levels of anxiety than non-users. These apps offer some relief for sufferers of depression and anxiety. If you ride the subway to work, the apps may also provide a bit of relief from the stress of your daily commute.

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