Utilizing Smartphones to Enhance Psychotherapy and Extend the Reach of Psychology

experience sampling, mobile intervention, psychotherapy, smartphone

There is increasing concern that most people in need of mental health (MH) services and/or substance abuse (SA) treatment are not receiving services. Although this situation seems daunting, smartphone apps can address some of these challenges. There are more than 10,000 mental health apps available to consumers (Ben-Zeev et al, 2013)—apps that increase mindfulness, encourage sobriety, enhance emotional stability and promote self-awareness, and so on. A major advantages of smartphone apps is that they can deliver assistance in-time, on-time, and over-time. What do we mean by this?

  • Smartphone interventions are in-time in the sense that they are affordable and have the potential to reach future clients who have not yet made a decision to seek treatment. Imagine smartphone pre-counseling apps that people actually want to use, integrating gaming principles with assessment and motivational content.
  • Smartphone interventions can be on-time in terms of being available as needed and desired – as a timely and ever present supplement to on-going traditional treatment services.
  • Mobile interventions can also provide enduring support over-time in a cost-effective manner. For example, recovering clients might continue to receive messages and reminders about the most effective approaches to relapse prevention—some of the same strategies clients found helpful during active treatment.

Although smartphone technology has advantages, most psychotherapists are understandably skeptical of technology-based, impersonal therapeutic interventions. As Yalom (2011) and many others have noted “it’s the relationship that heals.” As a result, it seems the real promise of mobile interventions is not in their potential to replace treatment providers, but in their capacity to further inform, extend and complement their services.

Most apps are static, pushing specialized content to end users, although some also monitor behavior and progress. The difference between these apps and the future we envision at LifeData involves the flexibility afforded to clinicians and their clients. We believe the future of in-time, on-time and over-time mobile interventions depends on tools that will enable treatment providers and their client to create, employ and test their own app experiences (Daugherty et al, 2016). These person-centered mobile interventions are well-suited to single-subject, therapist-client investigations of treatments.  In time, we imagine these efforts informing more traditional research trials.

Smartphone apps also present an opportunity to expand the reach of psychology. This could involve population interventions as well as creative efforts to “give away” positive psychology and encourage human flourishing. For example, we’ve had some success in our lab bringing gratitude and hope interventions to smartphones. At LifeData, we imagine on-going innovations utilizing smartphones to enhance psychotherapy and extend psychology.


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