Fighting addiction? There’s an app for that

UW developers, researchers team up to create successful app for recovery
Fighting addiction? There’s an app for that

The concept came decades ago. David Gustafson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published his first paper in 1973 after asking people with suicidal thoughts to sit down at computers and speak their minds.

Fast-forward a few decades and he’s developing mobile applications to guide addicts through recovery. But it all stems from the fact that some of us can say things to machines we just can’t say to each other.

“When you go in and collect data from these people and really try to understand what’s going on, it’s so much valuable information to help improve the system,” Gustafson said.

The Addiction Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System is an app designed at UW with the goal of helping those struggling with addiction through tough times. It’s not the only one of its kind, but developer Andrew Isham said it is one of the most holistic on the market.

“It’s designed to detect key moments, and then push resources during those moments,” Isham said.

Among the features, A-CHESS provides the user with a panic button. With one push, that person can find the closest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, reach out for support, listen to relaxation exercises or stories from others struggling and look at their inspiration.

The app also allows participants to program in addresses where they used to drink or do drugs. Their phone can then alert them when they are getting close to that location and give them the option of contacting a friend or family member.

A-CHESS also includes a network similar to Facebook, only this one is limited to just people struggling with addiction. A person can have a profile, and there are opportunities to send and receive messages of support. There’s even a news feed notifying people in the network when someone else has reached a milestone in their sobriety.

“In some cases, especially if there’s a strong support network, if there are people who perhaps know each other outside of the application we’ve found that people in sticky spots will post, and this is 24 hours,” Isham said. “And other people get notifications when there is a post if they set it up that way, and then they’ll jump in and support people.”

Isham, who worked with Gustafson on the project, said this is just the beginning for what technology can do for treatment.

“I would expect that once the impact is understood by other researchers, payers and especially patients that the process will be driven,” Isham said, “You’ll see this will become in 10 years the standard par of any behavioral intervention.”

Fiona McTavish helped research the effectiveness of the application and said the around-the-clock nature of this pocket-sized counseling is also a tool for clinicians. Those who treat addiction patients can access certain information, like public messages and discussions and regular survey results. McTavish said that information can help them home in on exactly what that person needs and when.

“People are more honest with a computer than they are face to face, and that’s really helpful. And I think the counselors learn that and are then really happy to have it,” McTavish said.

McTavish said the support system and networking part of this is especially important to the app’s success.

“Those exchanges that happen are so moving and so powerful. It’s a privilege to work on that and know you’re helping people about a time when they need help,” McTavish said.

Gustafson, Isham, and McTavish agreed the next step is to expand who any app can serve. Gustafson stressed families of addicts are essential parts of a person’s support system, and perhaps other programs can be created to provide them with resources. McTavish mentioned better treatment of other diseases that coincide with addiction, like PTSD or depression. Isham said with the information collected from this application, it might be possible to predict future risks for addicts before they face those temptations or challenges.

Isham, originally an engineer, said it’s just nice to see his work going toward something worthwhile.

“It really feels good to be doing something that’s having a positive impact on people’s lives rather than designing another widget that will sell,” Isham said.