We’re nearly one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, and mental illness researchers are finding good old-fashioned texting may help patients get through their recovery better than new-fangled smartphone apps.

Doctors are working smarter, not harder, when they can incorporate effective treatment methods into a patient’s existing lifestyle. In this regard, texting is one the 21st century’s greatest gifts. With the ultimate level of interconnectedness between doctor and patient, not to mention between patient and loved ones, people looking at the success or failure rates of certain forms of treatment don’t have to wonder if anything is getting lost to the flaws in self-reports. They can document, track, analyze, and help.

A new study published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing found that among 325 people receiving treatment for a mental illness at a community-based outpatient clinic, texting was far and away the most widely used technology — at rates similar to those of a nationally representative sample. The only difference was patients tended to share their phones more often than non-patients. Nearly 80 percent of people texted and many didn’t use any apps at all.

This isn’t the first time researchers have relied on texting’s ability to get accurate information fast. In 2013, University of Michigan psychologists hoping to measure Facebook’s impact on people’s happiness texted subjects periodically throughout the day. They asked questions related to people’s current level of contentedness, how recently they used Facebook, and how they felt after using it. Texting was key in this case because the data let scientists quickly parse through the effect Facebook was having, instead of having to rely on slippery testimony later, after the emotions had worn off.

"By utilizing a technology that is readily available and familiar to so many Americans, we see huge potential to improve treatment outcomes and provide patients who currently have only limited access to treatment additional treatment options," Kelly Caine, co-author and assistant professor in Clemson University’s School of Computing, said in a statement.

Mental illness is surprisingly common in the United States. One in four people is estimated to suffer from either depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or one of the many other disorders that are formally recognized. Unfortunately, as many as 60 percent of adults and 50 percent of adolescents between 8 and 15 receive no treatment, either because they can’t afford it or they choose not to receive it.

Texting may give doctors a natural way in, Caine says. Patients may even have the chance to text their doctors directly about their concerns. The full extent to which they can harness the medium will be determined in future studies.

"When designed from a patient-centered perspective, such as understanding cell phone sharing habits," Caine said, “these technologies have the potential to be useful and usable to the largest number of patients."

Source: Campbell B, Caine K, Connelly K, Doub T, Bragg A. Cell phone ownership and use among mental health outpatients in the USA. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. 2015.