Smartphone App for Child Anxiety Wins National Recognition

By Cristina Mestre

A smartphone app to help children with anxiety disorders that was developed by University of Pittsburgh researchers has been recognized at a national conference for its ability to empower consumers.

The SmartCAT, short for smartphone-enhanced child anxiety treatment, is a mobile health platform that was developed by Jennifer Silk, Ph.D., and Bambang Parmanto, Ph.D., along with Dr. Parmanto’s graduate student Gede Pramana, all from the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences. It was recognized as one of three winners of the Behavioral Health Patient Empowerment Challenge earlier this week at the Technology Innovations for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disorders Conference at the White House.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) held the conference to highlight how technology can be used to improve mental health.  For example, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine professor Bruce Rollman, MD, presented his research on using the Internet to treat mood and anxiety disorders.

Each year, approximately 13 percent of adolescents experience mental illness, and between 10 to 20 percent of school-aged youth are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Yet according to SAMHSA, only one-third of children with mental health issues receive treatment, and many children continue to struggle with symptoms even after treatment. Fortunately, technology can play a significant role in helping individuals with mental illness to self -manage their behavioral health and to foster treatment.  

The SmartCAT  is designed to improve cognitive behavioral treatments for children with anxiety disorders.  Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves teaching children skills for coping with their anxiety and practicing the skills with a therapist, and has been recognized as an effective treatment.  However, many children continue to have symptoms of anxiety even after weekly therapy sessions.

Silk and Parmanto believe that if children use technology to practice the skills they are learning in treatment on a daily basis, instead of just once a week in the clinic, they may get better faster, and stay better for longer.

For this reason, SmartCAT is designed to improve treatment for children by allowing them to practice CBT while they go about their daily lives, through the use of their smart phones. The app provides coaching to patients when and where they need it (not just in their therapist’s office), increases communications between therapists and patients, and helps therapists track progress and personalize treatment by focusing on patient-specific needs and strengths.  All communications in SmartCAT are also secure, says Dr. Silk. 

Children are prompted to complete a series of questions about their emotions and a series of coping thoughts and problem solving steps used to deal with the situation. This information is sent to a therapist ‘portal’ where it can be monitored.  The therapist is therefore able to review patients’ real-world CBT skill use, monitor their progress, and send treatment materials (e.g. a relaxation video) and encouraging messages. 

Children can earn prizes for using the app, notes Dr. Parmanto.  This encourages them to use the app and keep them engaged. The team is also working on developing skill-building video games to the app, to make it even more engaging for patients.

“Initial results of the app’s use are promising, and feedback from both patients and therapists has been overwhelmingly positive,” added Silk.  “Technology is enabling us to explore a whole new world of treatment options for our patients.” 

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