Apps Focus on Mental Well-Being


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Leo Hidalgo.

Cases of anxiety are on the rise among college students. According to a recent study conducted by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, more than 50 percent of students cite anxiety as a legitimate health concern. The data shows that anxiety has surpassed depression as the most prevalent mental health affliction occurring on college campuses.

Anxiety can seemingly emerge at any time. It stems from many different sources, and often for reasons that we can’t predict. Like so many mental illnesses, anxiety can affect an individual in a number of ways. An anxious person may experience rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath. Other symptoms are more mental, such as a racing mind or overtly negative thoughts.

The University of Central Florida recently hosted a workshop for students called Anxiety 101. A therapist asked the room to describe symptoms that they associate with anxiety. Students mentioned sensations of panic, an accelerated heart rate, and difficulty maintaining normal sleeping and eating patterns.

The eruption of anxiety in young people correlates to the extremely fast-paced world of technology that surrounds us. The pathways we now rely on to communicate are essentially anxiety-filled booby traps, from feeling envious of friends’ Instagram feeds to mastering the art of the humblebrag.

However, not all sources of anxiety can be pinned on social media and iMessage. Some of the stress stems from familial expectations, as parents are often more fixated on academic performances than their children are. From listening to their parents’ fear of potential failure, students absorb and replicate this perpetual state of worry–typically in regard to things they may not even yet fully understand.

Overwhelmed with the influx of anxious students seeking help, UCF’s health center offers daily workshops and therapy groups. Similar to most university clinics, UCF only has a limited number of therapists employed. Individual therapy can only be offered to students on a short-term basis.

With the demand for therapists so much higher than the availability of one-on-one sessions, UCF considered a more innovative way to offer students the help they need. In the fall, the health center plans to test a new app that is designed to treat anxiety through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Photo courtesy of Petr Dosek.

The app, called Therapist Assisted Online (TAO), is programmed to deliver low intensity-high engagement therapy. The “low intensity” aspect differs from face-to-face therapy. There is a low level of time spent with a specialist therapist, but sessions are meant to be high quality, well delivered, and more efficient. As a result, time and cost on the specialist therapist’s part is significantly reduced. However, a therapist does “provide individual adaption, support, encouragement, problem solving, and accountability.”

TAO’s option of handheld therapy offers a solution to students who otherwise might have been reluctant to seek treatment in person. Research gathered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that while one in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness, 40 percent do not seek help.

In a similar vein to TAO, apps that promote mindfulness and meditation are also becoming more widely available. Students suffering from stress–or anyone who suffers from anxiety–may find them beneficial.

Calm, for instance, is an app that offers serene nature backdrops and peaceful sounds to foster brief meditation sessions. One background presents a rainy forest scene with taps of drizzling rain, while another depicts a river rushing through a foggy landscape as birds chirp.

Headspace is another app that promotes mindfulness through meditation. Users are offered a free 10-day trial to learn the basics of the practice. When the trial ends, people are encouraged to purchase a subscription to Headspace in order to access their library of meditative media or focus on facets of their lives such as health, relationships, creativity, or happiness.

Like exercise, mindfulness is more beneficial to a person when applied diligently in daily life. Benefits range widely in the realms of physical, psychological, and social well being. Mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce stress, promote positive emotion, and even boost the body’s immune system.

As much as ubiquitous technology and a constant inundation of media may stress many of us out, the positive research results behind TAO and the market of meditative apps show ways in which innovative devices may make much-needed therapy and mindfulness more accessible to the public.