The capabilities of text messaging are endless. Just ask Adrian Aguilera.
A clinical psychologist by training, he became frustrated with the limitations of mental health treatment follow-through.
“I realized that when we provide mental health treatment, especially in low-income settings, there isn’t always a lot of follow-up. People don’t seem to get the most out of their treatment as they should,” he remarks.
As a result, Adrian used his 2011 New Connections grant to launch a text messaging platform to treat mental health issues like depression. Through texting patients to remind them of their treatment and homework, the intervention aims to help people become more engaged with their mental health care.
In addition to encouraging treatment adherence, Adrian also saw potential for the app to help people seek treatment in the first place.
“We have strong evidence for mental health treatments that work, and yet the number of people who actually seek these treatments is quite low for a lot of reasons; practical, personal, stigma,” Adrian explains. “By leveraging technology, we hope to attract more people — especially those who don’t want to go seek help in person. We can reach them where they are.”
Since usage of mobile phones is so widespread, especially in disadvantaged communities, text messaging was a great place to start. In 2015, some 13 percent of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year were smartphone-dependent.
In addition to launching the platform, his New Connections grant allowed Adrian to conduct initial analyses on it. The tests revealed some surprising subtle cultural observations.
“The English speakers liked the texts because they helped them be more self-aware,” Adrian reports. “Spanish speakers, on the other hand, focused on the social and supportive aspect. They felt supported and cared for when they received a message.”
These cultural nuances are central to Adrian’s passion for research.
“I grew up in a low-income, predominantly Mexican community in Chicago, and from an early age, I saw family members experience mental illness, but without the support of Spanish-speaking psychologists,” he explains. “My desire to help them is what drove me to psychology.”
With research aimed at integrating health services and systems into people’s everyday lives, Adrian believes that “health is not a thing you go do when you have an appointment. It’s every day.”
- Listen to Adrian talk about his work on automated text messaging to improve depression treatment on Public Health Minute, a public radio program bringing cutting-edge research to the forefront in one-minute sound bites.