New app helps teens with depression and anxiety cope: ‘My negative thoughts go away’

Poor mental health among U.S. teens and young adults was a problem before the pandemic, but over the course of the past few years, rates have been increasing: Almost half of high school students, 44%, said they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year, and more than a third, 37%, said they had poor mental health during the pandemic, according to an analysis of 2021 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s more, there’s currently a national shortage of pediatric mental health providers, and many of the kids who are able to access care still struggle to comply with their treatment plans, Dr. Eva Szigethy, director of behavioral health at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told NBC News senior national correspondent Kate Snow in a segment aired on TODAY on Oct. 10, World Mental Health Day.

That’s why the results of a new study from the UPMC, which found that an app can significantly reduce anxiety and depression, show such promise for the youth mental health crisis.

The study, published in Psychiatric Services and funded by kids’ mental health nonprofit YourMomCares, looked at the effects of a mental health app called RxWell, also developed by UPMC, on people 16 to 22 years old who’d been prescribed the app for routine care. The app provides coping techniques to users in real time — such as relaxation, meditation and how to tolerate stress — and the option to speak with a mental health coach.

“Essentially, (the coaches) help them set goals. They provide them with feedback. They help them to recognize when their symptoms are worsening,” Dr. Sonika Bhatnagar, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told Snow. “Youth reported that when they interacted with the behavioral health coach, that they found it to be a better clinical experience.”

Of the 506 people prescribed the app at 35 pediatric practices, 278 actually enrolled in it; of these, 58% used the app, and 63% messaged their coach.

The findings indicated that app users experienced a “significant” reduction in anxiety and depression at the one and three-month marks, the study authors wrote. In particular, 73% of app users reported reduced anxiety, and 57% saw reduced depression.

“This study uses the best of technology and human connection to help adolescents and young adults through their darkest moments when they are depressed or even suicidal,” Szigethy said in a press release. Users were most likely to use the app when they were feeling anxious or stressed, “emphasizing the benefits of the app providing a ‘real person’ to give accountability and reassurance,” the press release noted.

The app is available for free to UPMC Health Plan members 16 and over.

One young adult who’s benefited from the app is Caileigh Nutter, 22, who was part of RxWell’s first test group. Nutter’s parents, now sober, struggled with substance use during her childhood, and she was raised by her grandparents starting at 8 years old. Her mom was in a state penitentiary when she was a teenager.

“I just felt alone. I felt like no one understood me. I felt no one understood my past or even where I was coming from at that time,” Nutter told Snow. “A lot of roles were put on to me, such as being that mother figure, on top of my grandmother being that mother figure, to my sister.”

Her doctor prescribed her the app when she felt anxiety while in nursing school and her grandfather got sick. Nutter said she was “hesitant” to use it at first because she didn’t know how private her communications would be and she worried it would have some of the negativity of social media.

“It took a lot for me to be able to engage in it at first. But once I realized like, OK, this is totally private, I was definitely reassured,” Nutter recalled. “I was able to connect with my coach at any time, and it’s like an instant messaging, which was really helpful.”

Being able to communicate with her coach more regularly than traditional therapy, which usually takes place once or twice a week for an hour or less, was an important part of Nutter’s experience.

“The things that I was going through, the feelings that I was feeling, the thoughts that I was thinking, it helped me to be able to create an overall positive mindset to know that instantly I can have my negative thoughts go away, to know that I’m able to have a coach right there whenever I need her, to know that she’s able to help me create a plan and to follow that plan,” she said.

Nutter got married last year and landed her dream job working as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit after graduating in the spring. She still relies on skills she learned from RxWell.

“I bring those techniques back into my life now, realizing that things are not going happen overnight. It is the day-by-day process, and to be able to still use those techniques that the app brought to me is just incredible to know that I can do it anywhere at any time,” she said.

An expanded study has been launched that will 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.

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