Get by with a little help from a text

Innovative mental health program sends mood-elevating messages to boost conventional treatment.

"There are only two days in the week we should not worry about: yesterday and tomorrow. That leaves today. Live for today."

More than 6,000 Albertans rely daily on expertly crafted text messages like this to alleviate mental health issues thanks to a study that has evolved into an effective intervention program developed by University of Alberta psychiatrist Vincent Agyapong and delivered by Alberta Health Services.

Text4Mood is not a replacement for conventional treatments such as counselling services, said Agyapong, but a supplementary tool meant to help fill the gap when patients face long wait-lists.

"We know how important medical interventions are to impact mental illness prognosis. The faster you get help, the faster you recover and the less expensive treatment is for health services," said Agyapong.

More than half of the 20 per cent of Albertans with mental illness or addiction report unmet needs for services, according to the recent provincial Gap Analysis of Public Mental Health and Addictions Programs.

"Counselling services are human intensive. We don't have a sufficient number of counsellors able to meet the demands of patients in Alberta," explained Agyapong. "Using technology to provide some form of counselling and support by text message can reach a large number of people with minimal costs and virtually no human resources at all."

The Text4Mood study, published last week in BMC Psychiatry, was the first to examine text messaging as a public health intervention for mental illness and addiction. The text messages-based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles, essentially personal coping strategies-were written by cognitive behavioural therapists, counsellors and mental health patients to target mood and anxiety symptoms. The software program auto-delivers a new message every day at the same time for the 180-day subscription period.

The vast majority of active subscribers who participated in the survey reported that the text messages made them more hopeful about managing issues in their lives (84 per cent) and feel in charge of managing depression and anxiety (76 per cent).

"When the study ended and funding ran out, there was so much outcry we were able to build the case to get more funding," said Agyapong.

In fact, the public health intervention was recently allocated new funding on a month-to-month basis to ensure Text4Mood keeps on issuing its 10 a.m. daily dose of positivity.

Unlike other mood-boosting technology interventions, Text4Mood does not require an elaborate phone or an app to work. Anyone can sign up by simply texting the word "mood" to 760-670-3130.