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App shown effective for treating eating disorders

Experts at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that using a phone app may help to fill a treatment gap for young people struggling with certain types of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are a significant mental health problem on college campuses, with more than 13% of women – and 3.6% of men – estimated to be dealing with one. However, studies show that fewer than 20% of those affected ever receive treatment, with obstacles like the stigma associated with reaching out for help and a lack of available clinicians getting in the way.

A recent Washington University study focused on women at 27 college campuses, including the Wash U campus, who were determined to either have or be at risk for bulimia or binge eating disorder. It did not include women with anorexia nervosa because they are more likely to benefit from a different treatment approach, the researchers said.

The study included about 700 participants who were randomly assigned either to receive cognitive behavioral therapy through a mobile app, or to be referred to the university’s counseling services for care. 

Those using the mobile app could engage with a series of 40 cognitive behavioral therapy sessions at their own pace, each about 10 minutes long. They also had access to phone calls with therapy coaches at the beginning and end of the series, and could text with them throughout the program.   

The findings were published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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