Text messages can lift your mood, says Berkeley researcher

Carolyn Morris
Shine On

Think of it as a virtual house call — when doctors used to care for patients at their homes. Getting a text message from a psychologist, even if it's through an automated system, can help bring depressed patients out of their isolation.

That's what clinical psychologist and social welfare professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Adrian Aguilera, discovered through a small pilot study published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice last year. He has since received a $75,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to do more research on the benefits of using text messages to compliment mental health therapies.

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In the pilot study, Aguilera treated depressed and low-income patients, many of them Latino, using a text-messaging component in addition to cognitive-behavioural therapy. The messages asked about their mood, got them to think about positive interactions and reminded them to take their medications. Out of the 12 patients involved in the research, the majority found the automated texts helpful.

"When I was in a difficult situation and I received a message, I felt much better. I felt cared for and supported. My mood even improved," reports one patient in the study.

The idea behind texting was to communicate with patients using the medium they're most comfortable with. And according to a Pew Research Center survey published last year, the most avid texters were non-white and had incomes below $30,000.

"We are harnessing a technology that people use in their everyday lives to improve mental health in low-income, under-served communities," says Aguilera.

But not everyone sees the use of new technologies in therapy as a good thing. Toronto clinical psychologist Jeffrey Weatherby uses Facebook and Skype to compliment his practice, when it makes sense, but he tries to minimize technology when it comes to caring for his patients.

"It could potentially lead to problems," says Weatherby. "If a person is suicidal, they need a higher level of care. To be texting back and forth just isn't appropriate."

He explains that people often can't discuss contextual emotions through texts or email, and instead they use clichés, making it hard to know what is really going on inside. The invitation to constant connectivity that is the world of social media can also be disruptive and encourages people to be impulsive, he says.

"I have people sending me messages in the middle of the night because they're stressed out," he explains. "That's just not appropriate."

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But Aguilera feels that this is appropriate technology to help his patients apply the lessons learned in therapy.

"The people I wanted to impact directly didn't have as much access to computers and the Internet," he says. "So I thought about using mobile phones to send text messages to remind them to practice the skills covered in therapy sessions."

And his patients noticed the difference when the automated texting system stopped working for a week.

"When it stopped, I missed it," a patient reports. "My life is so crazy, I need a reminder to think about how I feel."

While it sounds like a good idea, could the automated texts just be a new adaptation of those cheesy email chains reminding you to love your life? They start by making a few people happy, until they become just another form of spam.

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