Can mobile phone calls help young people with substance abuse?

Many young people who seek help with substance abuse problems also suffer from depression, anxiety and stress. And too many discontinue their treatment prematurely. Researchers have now tested whether automated mobile phone calls can be of help.

Every year 300–400 teenagers and young adults up to 25 seek help with drug or alcohol addiction at the Maria Malmö clinic. Problems with addiction have often proven to coincide with mental ill health, and that many of those who seek help discontinue their treatment already after the first visit.

Researchers at Lund University have studied whether support via mobile phone, using IVR (interactive voice response) technology – i.e. automated mobile phone conversations with personal feedback – could be used as a complement to conventional addiction treatment at the clinic.

“We assumed that young people today are so used to mobile phones that it is a natural part of their everyday lives”, says consultant and doctoral student Martin Olsson, who has worked with this study since 2012.

In the study, the researchers wanted to see whether personal feedback on how young people with substance abuse problems were doing and on their level of intake of drugs or alcohol, could have an impact on how long they stayed in treatment. They also wanted to see whether the personal feedback had an effect on their psychiatric symptoms and on the extent of their abuse.

In the study, the participants each received an automated phone call twice a week for 12 weeks during which they had to answer questions about depression, anxiety, and stress as well as about their current intake of alcohol and drugs. Half of the participants were only asked questions, while the other half were randomly selected to receive pre-recorded personal audio feedback. The feedback described whether the patient had improved, worsened, or stayed the same, compared to the previous session.

The study showed that the group that received active personal feedback improved to a greater extent in terms of symptoms of anxiety and stress, compared to the group that only responded to questions. With regard to symptoms of depression, however, the personal feedback had no visible effect, and was also not able to free more people from alcohol or drug addiction. Furthermore, the feedback did not increase the number of people who continued their treatment.

“Our conclusion is that IVR technology via mobile phone can serve as a complement in addition to regular conversational therapy for substance abuse/addiction among young people”, says Anders Håkansson at the Clinical Addiction Research unit, Lund University. “The advantage of this mobile technology is that you can receive a more immediate account of the patients’ experiences compared to what you might achieve at their next appointment at the clinic, as the questions concern how they have been feeling in the most recent days.”

“The technology seems promising for the purpose of monitoring and treating symptoms of stress and anxiety in young patients with addiction”, concludes Anders Håkansson.

Text: Anders Håkansson and Pia Romare

The study was published in 2016 in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, and will be part of consultant and doctoral student Martin Olsson’s thesis on addiction and mental ill health, which he will defend in May 2017.


Research study 3M – Maria Malmö Mobile study

The treatment study was conducted at Maria Malmö – a clinic run by the centre for dependency disorders (Beroendecentrum), the child and youth psychiatric clinic (BUP) and the social services in Malmö

IVR technology

Interactive Voice Response – is like a mobile survey where a central computer calls the patient and asks a number of questions. The patient listens to the pre-recorded messages and responds by using the mobile phone keypa

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