School of Medicine

Mobile phone technology to screen, help treat college students

A research team led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a five-year, $3.8 million grant to evaluate the use of smartphones in treating psychiatric problems that are common among college students.

“Not enough services are available to meet the mental health needs of students on college campuses,” said principal investigator Denise E. Wilfley, PhD, the Scott Rudolph University Professor of Psychiatry and director of the Washington University Center for Healthy Weight and Wellness. “We’ve been in contact with many counseling centers on a number of college campuses, and they tell us that increasing numbers of students are struggling with many more problems, including severe problems, and counselors just can’t see them all. Without timely interventions, these problems can have lasting effects on students’ health, social, educational and economic outcomes.”

From a pool of about 150,000 students at 20 colleges, universities and community colleges, the researchers plan to identify students dealing with clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders, or at high risk for the onset of these problems. They expect to find about 8,000 such students willing to participate in the study. Those students will be placed randomly into one of two treatment groups. One group will be referred to college counseling centers for treatment, and the other will be asked to use a mobile phone app for help.

Wilfley’s team recently concluded a study of mobile and web-based treatments for eating disorders. That study involved almost 700 women at 28 colleges. The new grant, from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), expands the effort to include students of both sexes and adds to the mix depression and anxiety, which are on the rise on college campuses.

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