Poor mental health among American teens and young adults was a problem before the pandemic, but in recent years rates have increased: nearly half of high school students, 44%, said they felt constantly sad or hopeless over the past year, and more than a third, 37%, reported having poor mental health during the pandemic, according to an analysis of 2021 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
Additionally, there is currently a nationwide shortage of pediatric mental health care providers, and many children who can access care still struggle to adhere to their treatment plans, said Dr. Eva Szigethy, director of behavioral health at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, NBC News Senior National Correspondent Kate Snow said in a segment that aired on TODAY on Oct. 10, World Mental Health Day.
That’s why the results of a new study from UPMC, which found that an app can significantly reduce anxiety and depression, are so promising for the mental health crisis of young people.
The study, published in Psychiatric Services and funded by YourMomCares, a children’s mental health nonprofit, examined the effects of a mental health app called RxWell, also developed by UPMC, on people from 16 to 22 years old to whom the application had been prescribed for routine. care. The app provides users with real-time coping techniques – such as relaxation, meditation, and how to tolerate stress – and the ability to speak with a mental health coach.
“Essentially, (coaches) help them set goals. They provide them with feedback. They help them recognize when their symptoms are getting worse,” Dr. Sonika Bhatnagar, an associate professor of pediatrics at the faculty, told Snow. of Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh. “Young people reported that when they interacted with the behavioral health coach, they found it to be a better clinical experience.”
Of the 506 people who prescribed the app in 35 pediatric practices, 278 actually signed up; among them, 58% used the application and 63% sent a message to their coach.
The results indicated that app users experienced “significant” reductions in anxiety and depression after one and three months, the study authors wrote. In particular, 73% of app users reported a reduction in anxiety and 57% saw a reduction in depression.
“This study uses the best of technology and human connection to help adolescents and young adults through their darkest times when they are depressed or even suicidal,” Szigethy said in a press release. Users were more likely to use the app when feeling anxious or stressed, “highlighting the benefits of the app providing a ‘real person’ to empower and reassure,” the press release notes.
The app is available free of charge to UPMC Health Plan members age 16 and older.
One young adult who has benefited from the app is Caileigh Nutter, 22, who was part of RxWell’s first test group. Nutter’s parents, now sober, struggled with drug addiction during her childhood, and she was raised by her grandparents from age 8. Her mother was in a state penitentiary when she was a teenager.
“I just felt lonely. I felt like nobody understood me. I felt like nobody understood my past or even where I was coming from at that time,” Nutter told Snow. “A lot of roles have been given to me, like being this mother figure, in addition to my grandmother being this mother figure, to my sister.”
Her doctor prescribed the app when she felt anxiety in nursing school and her grandfather fell ill. Nutter said she was “hesitant” to use it at first because she didn’t know how private her communications would be and she feared it would get some of the negativity from social media.
“It took me a long time to be able to commit to it at first. But once I realized, OK, it’s totally private, I was definitely reassured,” Nutter recalled. “I was able to connect with my coach at any time, and it’s like instant messaging, which was really helpful.”
Being able to communicate with her trainer more regularly than traditional therapy, which usually takes place once or twice a week for an hour or less, has been a big part of Nutter’s experience.
“The things I was going through, the feelings I was feeling, the thoughts I was thinking, it helped me to be able to create an overall positive mindset of knowing that instantly I can make my negative thoughts go away, knowing that I’m able to have a coach where I need her, to know that she’s able to help me create a plan and follow that plan,” she said.
Nutter got married last year and landed her dream job as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit after graduating in the spring. She still relies on the skills she learned from RxWell.
“I’m bringing these techniques back into my life now, realizing that things won’t happen overnight. It’s the day-to-day process, and being able to continue using these techniques that the app has given me is everything. just amazing to know that I can do it anywhere and anytime,” she said.
An expanded study has been launched to test the app’s impact on suicidal thoughts and bring it to more patients in different parts of the country, including Boston and San Diego.