A Smartphone App Offers Hope

When someone is discouraged, maintaining perspective can be difficult. Our new mobile app--the Virtual Hope Box (VHB)—can help with that. It’s based on a physical “hope box” that some clinicians use with their patients--an actual box where patients can collect things that are soothing, that remind them of good times and their achievements, that help them feel worthwhile or give them hope.

The mobile app is a more portable and private version of a hope box, one that is always available whenever and wherever someone has their phone. For today’s military, that’s almost always—a recent survey of service members revealed that more than 95% own and carry mobile phones.

The VHB is first and foremost a useful coping tool for anyone dealing with stress, negative thoughts, and feelings of hopelessness. However, it has also shown promise for helping those who might be at risk of self-harm. We just finished a “proof of concept” study with 18 patients at a large regional VA behavioral health clinic and the feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. The study was funded in part by a research grant from the Military Suicide Research Consortium (MSRC), and a paper on the findings was just published.

The patients created physical hope boxes in addition to using the Virtual Hope Box, and although both versions were popular, patients used the VHB more and rated it more highly. Patients found it “more convenient”; “more private”; “more portable”; “more accessible and easier to put together”; “more options”; “easier to remember to use”; “with me all the time”; and “more effective”.

The Distract Me section of the app, which has puzzles and games, was used a lot. And it wasn’t just because they were so fun to play—patients said the games took their minds off whatever was bothering them at the time. In the Inspire Me section, where patients can add their own sayings to preloaded inspirational quotes, the patients turned to this section a lot more than I thought they would. I wasn’t as surprised that many patients used the interactive breathing exercises in the Relax Me section when they were feeling especially stressed. But perhaps most reassuring to me, was that the clinicians really liked the app—when helping their patients figure out how to personalize their versions, patients told them specific things that helped guide their counseling sessions together.

I’ve been talking about this app for quite a while, and I’ve been inundated by emails from providers asking when it would come out. I’m happy to say that the VHB is now available for free from the Android and iOS marketplace download sites. Our next step, which we’ve already begun, is to study the app’s effectiveness in treatment in a larger-scale clinical trial.

Nigel Bush, Ph.D. is a Research Psychologist and Program Manager for the Research, Outcomes and Investigations program at theNational Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Nigel Bush