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New PTSD app for iPhone, Android

by Mike Hoffman on August 2, 2012

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon have released a new version of the smartphone app for vets dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The new app – for both iPhones and Android phones – is called PE Coach. PE stands for Prolonged Exposure, a reference to prolonged exposure therapy for dealing with traumatic memory.

The new frontier of mental health apps assists users through their treatment of PTSD in conjunction with therapy. PE Coach is designed to help service members and veterans, especially those between visits with a military health care provider, said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

With PE therapy, a patient revisits the traumatic memory with a therapist, and as he or she emotionally processes the memory, anxiety decreases. The therapy also helps the patient confront situations that trigger memories of the trauma.

Kristin Valentino, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame, commended the military for producing the app, but tempered her approval until she saw how patients responded to it.

“In my experience this is pretty cutting edge. It seems promising, but more research needs to be done on the success. Who does it work best for? Who doesn’t it work for?” she said.

Users have the option to input activities that cause anxiety in the in vivo hierarchy, recording and inputting therapy sessions into the built-in calendar feature. The app also includes a place to keep notes, so a veteran can jot down thoughts for later discussions with therapists locations, situations or other events he or she avoided.

YouTube videos are integrated into the user’s interface explaining some of the more difficult terms and therapy techniques. The transition is seamless and user interface is simple, bordering simplistic.
The breathing exercise reminds one of a 1980’s children’s video graphic, but the bright colors and a pleasant, if not robotic, voice gets the job done.

Valentino cautioned patients should not trade use of the app for a consultation with a clinician.

“This is not a self help tool. I wouldn’t want a person to decide if an event is an appropriate anxiety provoking event. This doesn’t give the go-ahead to jump ahead. They could deal with the event by avoiding which would reinforce the anxiety. Don’t move up without clinicians’ approval,” she said.

A user named Drew wrote on Google Play’s post on the new app had some suggestions for an update to PE Coach.

“This app is essential for returning troops, like myself. I love the app and it has helped tremendously, but while progressing through the treatment I wanted to delete items that I have worked through. The app doesn’t allow you to delete items from the InVivo hierarchy,” Drew wrote.

PE Coach includes features developed for PTSD Coach, the smartphone app the VA and Pentagon released just over a year ago. This includes accurate information about PTSD, strategies for managing symptoms even on the go, access to public and individualized support sources, and the ability to track their symptoms.

The VA said in July that the app had been downloaded more than 53,000 times in more than 60 countries since its release in May 2011. That app recently earned the VA and the Pentagon an award for innovation in telemedicine from the American Telemedicine Association, VA officials said.

- By Joanna Campione and Bryant Jordan

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