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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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Did you know…? In 2016, mood disorders and substance abuse accounted for 25.9% of all hospital days. Together, four mental disorders – mood, substance abuse disorders, adjustment, and anxiety – and two maternal conditions – pregnancy complications and delivery – accounted for 53.6% of all hospital bed days. And 12.4% of all hospital bed days were attributable to injuries and poisonings. Here are the mental disorders that affected U.S. Armed Forces in 2016: Pie Chart titled Bed days for mental disorders in 2016: •	Mood Disorder (46,920 bed days) – the orange pie slice. •	Substance Abuse Disorders (44,746 bed days) – the blue pie slice. •	Adjustment Disorder (30,017 bed days) – the purple pie slice. •	Anxiety Disorder (20,458 bed days) – the gray pie slice. •	Psychotic Disorder (6,532 bed days) – the light blue pie slice. •	All other mental disorders (3,233 bed days) – the violet pie slice. •	Personality disorder (2,393 bed days) – the forest green pie slice. •	Somatoform (552 bed days) – the lime green pie slice. •	Tobacco dependence (2 bed days) – the white pie slice. Bar graph shows percentage and cumulative percentage distribution, burden “conditions” that accounted for the most hospital bed days, active component, U.S. Armed Forces 2016.  % of total bed days (bars) for mood disorder, substance abuse disorders, adjustment disorder, pregnancy complications; delivery; anxiety disorder; head/neck injuries, all other digestive diseases, other complications NOS; other back problems, all other signs and symptoms; leg injuries, all other maternal conditions; all other neurologic conditions; all other musculoskeletal diseases; all other skin diseases;  back and abdomen; appendicitis; all other infectious and parasitic diseases; all other cardiovascular diseases; all other mental disorders; all other respiratory diseases; arm/shoulder injuries; poisoning, drugs; foot/ankle injuries; other gastroenteritis and colitis; personality disorder; lower respiratory infections; all other genitourinary diseases; all other malignant neoplasms; cerebrovascular disease.  See more details on this bar graph in the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report (MSMR) April 2017 Vol. 24 No. 4 report, page 4. This annual summary for 2016 was based on the use of ICD-10 codes exclusively. Read more on this analysis at Health.mil/MSMR. #LetsTalkAboutIt Background of graphic is a soldier sitting on the floor in a dark room.

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