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Using mobile mental health apps to cope during social isolation

Soldier holding cell phone, showing app to another person Mobile mental health tools, including apps, can provide support to people experiencing anxiety while sheltering at home. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. (Photo by DHA Connected Health)

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Living through a global pandemic while adapting to new circumstances, like social distancing, can cause distress in anyone.

“We all need social connection, and being separated can make people feel more isolated and lead to depressive symptoms like low mood, poor concentration, lack of or too much sleep,” said Kelly Blasko, a clinical psychologist at the Defense Health Agency. “It is easy to feel overwhelmed, and that can lead to other mental health concerns such as anxiety and worry.”

Addressing mental health issues early can prevent potential problems down the line.

“We need to look at medical readiness holistically with mental health as just one aspect of overall health,” said Blasko. “Just like preventive measures are used to reduce the chances of a physical injury, there are preventive measures to reduce the chances of poor mental health.”

Mobile mental health tools, including apps, can provide valuable resources and support to people experiencing anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis.

“These health technologies can help during the in-between times of seeing your provider and can continue to improve the symptoms [of anxiety or depression],” explained Blasko, who is the lead for mobile health clinical integration at the DHA’s Connected Health branch.

Connected Health has developed mobile health tools and published several articles and research on the benefits of using digital health in clinical care, including guidelines on integrating mobile mental health tools into clinical practice.

The DHA’s mobile apps, listed here, are free and available for anyone to download from app stores for Android and Apple devices. There are apps that enhance self-care, and others that are a companion to treatment with a health care provider.

“Many self-care apps can be used without ongoing treatment. For example, Breathe2Relax teaches diaphragmatic breathing that is a skill we all can use to reduce stress.” said Blasko. “The Military Health System is expanding its virtual health services during this time and beneficiaries should check directly with their providers to see what options are available for them,” she added.

Blasko cautioned that mental health apps should never replace help from a health care provider.

“It is always good to seek help from a professional if you are worried about your mental health,” she said, noting the Military Crisis Line is available for urgent mental health issues. “These tools can be a way to develop daily coping skills and self-care habits. It is important to know how a mobile app is going to be helpful before relying on it for self-care.”

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