Feeling Anxious About Our Troubled Times? This App May Help

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Millions of people are experiencing anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, be it fear of losing employment, concerns about loved ones at risk, the stress of life disruptions, or that they themselves might become seriously ill.

Often, having someone available to help understand the anxiety is not possible. To provide more knowledge about COVID-19-related anxiety, experts at Cincinnati Children’s and the University of Cincinnati worked in collaboration with the digital behavioral health platform developer Wysa to create a new, free “Covid Anxiety” smartphone app. (Must use smartphone, not desktop, to download the app.)

Designed for use by people aged 13 and above, this artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chat bot engages in conversations with users, serving as a digital mental health coach. The tool can help people focus on why they feel anxious about the pandemic and provide recommendations for self-care. It also provides emergency contact numbers.

“This app aims to help people deal with their anxiety before it becomes severe,” says John Pestian, PhD, a leading expert in developing natural language processing and machine learning tools to address mental health concerns. “There is an increased demand for mental health services, with a surge of up to 25% in requests for new services since the pandemic began. We believe this app addresses an unmet need for direct, convenient engagement for people as they live through this challenging time.”

Anxiety includes a number of disorders, such as phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, many of which can be extremely disruptive to a person’s academic success, job, or personal relationships. Overall, an estimated 19% of U.S. adults experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year; and an estimated 31% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

However, prompt in-person support for anxiety issues can be hard to obtain.

To help address this gap, Pestian teamed up with Michael Sorter, MD, Director, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s, and Jeffrey Strawn, MD, an anxiety expert in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati.

They developed an AI-ready knowledge module that could be incorporated into Wysa’s AI-guided digital behavioral health platform. The result is an AI-trained tool that has been clinically-vetted by professionals and patients. The app can be installed on a smartphone from the Google Play Store or Apple App store. The app cannot be installed on a laptop.

How the App Works

Upon set up and sign in, users meet an animated penguin who walks users through an introduction to the anxiety tool. The Cincinnati Children’s program offers nine exercises for coping with COVID-related anxiety, which employ cognitive-behavior therapy methods, visualization, relaxation and other techniques to reduce stress.

“These self-help techniques are important because anxiety is common among the population,” says Sorter. “Unfortunately, anxiety often goes undiagnosed, and then untreated for long periods of time.”

The Covid Anxiety program’s exercises and conversations with the chat bot are intended to support self-care and are not intended to replace for professional psychiatric help. In situations where a conversation reveals a serious concern of self-harm or violence toward others, the app offers an “SOS” button that offers multiple ways to seek immediate help.

“We also went to great lengths to protect user privacy,” says Strawn. “This tool is an example of how technology can help people access mental health support easily when they need it.”

During initial testing, early versions of the app were introduced to dozens of patients receiving care at Cincinnati Children’s. These volunteers reported high levels of satisfaction with their experiences.

Longer-term, this tool and others like it may help extend mental health services to places and populations that currently have low access, such as rural communities that lack practicing child psychiatrists and low-income populations living in states with weak mental health coverage.

If You Are In Crisis

If you are in emotional crisis or feel suicidal, please press the SOS button on the app and follow the contact information. Resources include:

  • 1-800-662-4357 -- National Helpline from SAMHSA
  • 1-800-273-8255 -- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you are in the Cincinnati area, you also can contact the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Cincinnati Children’s at 513-636-4124 or by email to psychiatryresponse@cchmc.org.

For non-emergency questions about the app, please email covidanxiety@cchmc.org.

Contact Information

Tim Bonfield
timothy.bonfield@cchmc.org
513-910-1018