By Chris Adams

With smartphones everywhere, and mental health concerns widespread, is it possible for technology to help people cope?

That’s the focus of research by Dr. John Torous, co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Harvard Medical School. He’s also part of the American Psychiatric Association’s task force evaluating this new breed of smartphone apps.

The reality is that there are tens of thousands of health care apps out there, with a growing number of them claiming to help people monitor their mental health conditions. A typical example is a PTSD Coach, which seeks to help military veterans learn about and manage symptoms that often occur after trauma.

Torous said PTSD Coach can be useful for those that stick with it, and he also cited the T2 Mood Tracker from the Department of Defense, which he said is a nice tool to track many types of mental health symptoms. Both apps, he said, have taken into account privacy and security concerns, have been used in some studies, and are fairly easy to use.

Torous reviewed the evidence – or lack of it – for many of these apps, which often generate big, dramatic headlines but tend to underperform the hype.

“Just because you put an app out there doesn’t mean that people are using it and engaging in it,” he told National Press Foundation fellows. “There’s some quacky stuff out there.”

He reviewed the types of data the apps collect. “Active data” is from apps that, for example, ask users to respond to questions on their mood on a regular basis. “Passive data” is from apps that, for example, use GPS to monitor movements and activity levels – which could shed light on somebody’s mood.

For more resources, he pointed fellows to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Digital Psychiatry Program.