Irish-designed app in trial to help those with schizophrenia

NUI Galway’s project will allow sufferers to maintain contact with peers and doctors

The newly designed MOST app will allow young participants not only to manage their conditions in real time, but to maintain contact with a core group including peers, doctors and past patients. File  photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The newly designed MOST app will allow young participants not only to manage their conditions in real time, but to maintain contact with a core group including peers, doctors and past patients. File photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

A new mobile phone app is to be rolled out to young people suffering from schizophrenia and other psychoses this week in a €1.5 million trial to measure how social technology can enhance recovery.

The five-year study being undertaken at NUI Galway happens to have come at a crucial juncture – ongoing Covid-19 restrictions have imposed particular challenges on those suffering complex mental health issues, aggravated by social isolation.

Based on an Australian success story, the newly designed MOST app will allow young participants not only to manage their conditions in real time, but to maintain contact with a core group including peers, doctors and past patients.

“What we really want to know is if we can deliver this in an Irish context,” said Dr Gary Donohoe, Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway, who is overseeing the project.

“What we have noticed is that young people are much more comfortable texting or using social media than they are at picking up the phone.”

Although not a treatment for the illness, the app management approach could form a key part of recovery.

Psychoses typically affects younger people from their teenage years up to about 30 (two-thirds of all patients), while older people are often those who have simply never received treatment.

The condition affects the way the brain processes information – those who suffer its effects can lose touch with reality and develop symptoms including hallucinations and delusions. This often means hearing voices or believing people are intent on harming them.

At any one time in Ireland there are about 75,000 people with various psychoses, including about 45,000 with schizophrenia, one in five of whom might only ever experience one episode. In Ireland, the annual new case rate is about 32 per 100,000 people.

The study funded by the Health Research Board funded will eventually compare the recovery data of those who used with the app against those who did not.

Participants are to be drawn from new early intervention centres which have opened in Cork and Sligo, and a third due to open in Meath early next year. There they receive a variety of therapies and interventions as well as access to supported employment.

“We now know that if you can identify people earlier and engage them in a range of treatments in the community they do an awful lot better,” said Dr Karen O’Connor, a consultant psychiatrist and National Clinical Lead of Early Intervention in Psychosis who has previously worked in Melbourne alongside the people who developed a similar app.

“Some people will find social interaction harder and we are hoping that they will find the app a less threatening way. For some people the online space is definitely a more comfortable space.”

A key strength of the approach is communication through recovery. Both Prof Donohoe and Dr O’Connor explained that while much progress had been made in reducing stigma around mental health, this had not always extended to psychosis. Sufferers are often fearful of talking about their condition when recovering in day to day life, a limitation the app will help address.