Encouraging text messages can help with mental disorder recovery, research finds

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UC Berkeley research shows being sent encouraging text messages can help people with depression and other mental disorders recover.

In 2010, Adrian Aguilera, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, developed the “Short Message Service (SMS)” intervention program. This text messaging service “allows the effects of therapy to be magnified, with no additional time aside from setting up a schedule of messages,” Aguilera said in an email.

Patients were sent automated text messages containing positive reminders to implement strategies learned in therapy in their everyday lives. Receiving the texts gives an “increased sense that someone cares for that individual,” Aguilera added.

With a $75,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that Aguilera received after publishing the results of the project in November 2011 in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, he continues to work on the project. He is improving the software used to send and receive the messages.

Many of Aguilera’s patients are Latinos with low incomes suffering from depression and other psychological disorders.

“I think it’s a great direction for providing intervention, particularly for low income communities … it’s the access that cell phones allow that make them so useful,” said Valerie Edwards, social worker and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Edwards explained how in the 1990s, use of newly widely available technology also helped patients.

“Twenty years ago I was director of an outpatient clinic in San Francisco, just before voicemail became common in nonprofit settings,” she said. “Just by being able to hear their therapist’s voice, clients who had needed to come in two or three times a week to keep them stabilized were able to manage in the community even if they came to the center less frequently.”

Aguilera said in the email that the main goal is to compare whether therapy with the addition of text messaging is more effective than therapy by itself.

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