A growing movement to help people cope with anxiety, stress or mild depression — therapy without the therapist — has reached the Twin Cities, with Bloomington-based HealthPartners offering a new online tutorial that patients can use at home.
"Beat the Blues," a Web-based program used frequently in England alongside antidepressant drugs and talk therapy, will debut in Minnesota as an early warning system to help people before their symptoms reach clinical or disruptive levels.
"What we are trying to do is get upstream," said Karen Lloyd, HealthPartners' senior director of behavioral health.
Nationwide surveys indicate that unmanaged stress and anxiety are commonplace in the United States. In one, Lloyd noted, 41 percent of Americans described themselves as struggling with anxiety or stressful circumstances and another 3 percent characterized themselves as "suffering." In a second survey, half of respondents could identify a major source of stress in their lives such as a personal illness, death in the family or problems at work.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will suffer some form of mental disorder in their lives, but that two-thirds never seek mental health care because of the stigma, cost or other concerns.
Lloyd said online therapy can be cheaper and more attractive to people who won't pursue more formal care.
Rethink gloomy thoughts
Beat the Blues uses cognitive-behavioral therapy — an approach that challenges people to re-examine negative thought patterns — while helping them think through the sources of stress in their lives and how they react.
A user might be asked, for example, to imagine a lunch appointment where their date shows up late and consider how they would react. Becoming despondent and wondering why bad things always happen — when the date might simply be stuck in traffic — is the kind of negative thinking that can aggravate depression, Lloyd said.
"It's very much self-help," Lloyd said. "It teaches you how to inspect your thoughts and your assumptions and see how they drive your reactions or your emotions."
Users can compare themselves to fictional characters in the tutorial, such as an overwhelmed schoolteacher, who offer guides and responses to the same questions.
The service is free to people with HealthPartners insurance or those who use its clinics, and it consists of eight sessions to complete over the course of eight to 10 weeks.
For people reluctant to seek traditional mental health care, the new resource sounds like a "good idea," said Sue Abderholden, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. "Certainly one worth trying," she said. "If people can interrupt these thoughts and feelings early, when the symptoms are mild, perhaps we can prevent them from becoming more serious."
'We demoralize ourselves'
Beat the Blues is one of a growing number of mental health apps and has a rival in Australian-based MoodGYM, which also provides online cognitive behavioral therapy. Mayo Clinic debuted its Anxiety Coach mobile phone app in 2012, and it is likewise based on this therapeutic approach.
Lloyd said HealthPartners selected Beat the Blues because of the evidence behind it, which also prompted the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to endorse it.
Unaddressed stress and depression can take a toll on physical health, especially for people with chronic diseases, she noted.
"Stress or even mild depression or anxiety disorder — it exacerbates physical symptoms. So if you have a heart condition or if you have diabetes or goodness knows if you are trying to change your lifestyle by losing weight or stopping smoking, one of the things that gets in the way is negative self talk. We demoralize ourselves.
"What you think," she added, "has a big impact on how you feel."