Cellphones could be tool for treating teen mood disorders

If there’s one thing the typical Canadian teen wouldn’t be caught without, it’s a cellphone. So doctors are hoping to employ the ubiquitous communications device as a means of diagnosing and treating mood disorders among the adolescent set.

If there’s one thing the typical Canadian teen wouldn’t be caught without, it’s a cellphone. So doctors are hoping to employ the ubiquitous communications device as a means of diagnosing and treating mood disorders among the adolescent set.

Researchers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto have developed cellphone software that would allow teens to record mood changes as they occur, along with other pertinent health information related to depression and bipolar disorder.

“Mood disorders can significantly negatively impact an individual’s social, occupational and academic functioning,” said Dr. Anthony Levitt, chief of psychiatry and a co-investigator in the study.

Yet teenagers are the least likely of all age groups to seek professional help, even though an estimated 15 per cent of youth are affected by mental illness at any given time.

The hospital is looking for 36 adolescents aged 14 to 20 — with and without mood disorders — to keep a digital daily record for nine months so researchers can assess whether the mobile app could be incorporated into regular clinical practice.

Cellphones and air time are being provided to participants for the pilot project, said Dr. David Kreindler, a youth psychiatrist involved in developing the Calling for Care project. The goal is to see how receptive teens are to using the technology.

“For people like us, psychiatrists who are treating patients with mood disorders, one of the most helpful things you can do is keep what’s called a mood journal, a day-by-day record of how bad the various symptoms are.

“If you ask an adult to keep a mood journal, for the most part … they’ll do it just because the doctor told them to,” said Kreindler. “If you try doing it with teens, our own experience … is that they won’t.”

He said there are likely a number of reasons for that reticence: it’s a hassle, the novelty wears off and “they have to drag around a geeky-looking piece of paper and pen.”

The latter plays into the societal stigma surrounding mental illness, and a fear common among teens of being different from their peers.

“It would be a little bit odd, just practically speaking, for a teen to be sitting there with their mood journal in the middle of English class, making notes on their desk where everybody can peer over their shoulder,” said Kreindler.

“It’s probably less awkward for them socially if they’re doing something on a cellphone, rather than tying to do things on a piece of paper.”

The digital diaries would include entries on feelings of depression, elation, appetite, hours of sleep, energy levels and any suicidal thoughts.

The recordings, sent daily by cellphone to the Sunnybrook team, would allow psychiatrists to look at mood patterns over time.

With the help of Motorola, which is involved on the technology side of the project, the team has also incorporated software called the Life Event Browser — allowing teens to report on any significant occurrence in their daily lives that substantially affected mood.

Kreindler said participants will be asked to text in a message describing the event and its impact.

“So, for example, if every time the teacher says something bad, their mood crashes and stays that way for a day, that gives us something to work with.”

As part of the project, participants would also have face-to-face meetings with one of the doctors every three months.

So far, about five teens have enrolled in the program and the Sunnybrook team is looking for about 30 more volunteers to take part. If deemed successful, cellphones as a psychiatric tool would become part of regular practice, Kreindler said.

To enrol in the study or for more information, email mood.research(at)sunnybrook.ca or call 416-802-6504. Website: http://www.sunnybrook.ca/content/?pageDept—Psych—Res.