App for early warning of psychosis follows work of maverick RD Laing

He was the maverick Scottish psychiatrist of his time, who wrote extensively about psychosis, and is the subject of a new film starring David Tennant, out next month.

RD Laings work focused on difficult family relationships

Now researchers from the University of Glasgow, are furthering RD Laing’s research into mental health in an equally pioneering way – by creating an app that identifies early warning signs in people with experience of psychosis.

The Empower app works by asking the individual a range of questions, the answers to which are then compared to a personal baseline score. This helps highlight if there are any warning signs of psychosis and can lead to an early intervention if there is a higher level of change in behaviour, with the research team being notified to take further action. This could include contacting that person, a family carer or a health professional.

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The app is the brainchild of Professor Andrew Gumley, from the university’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Research Group.

He said: “My career has been around relapse prevention and in my early research we found that the consequences of relapse can be negative in terms of things like involuntary hospitalisation which even led to trauma – so the person would be getting flashbacks.

“The experience of having a recurrence of hearing frightening voices and paranoia results in people being brought into hospital and losing that connection with friends and family.

“We discovered that people develop a fear of relapse and a fear of the consequences of relapse. That makes it difficult to help people who are worried about connecting with others in case they either end up in hospital or let people down.

“We discovered that the fear of relapse was one of the most powerful predictors of relapse itself and by focusing on that we realised the antidote to that is about putting the person in control.

“It’s about giving them the skills of being able to be aware of changes in their feelings, emotions, and learn to develop strategies for coping with that themselves.”

The £1.5m study over three years has sites in Glasgow and Melbourne with researchers looking to recruit more people to the trial in the UK and Australia.

Gumley said he had followed his predecessor Laing’s work as an undergraduate. He said: “RD Laing is an interesting character, he worked in this department in psychological medicine before he went down to London. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s I read him and I liked how much he moved away from the diagnosis and focused on the person.

“A lot of RD Laing’s work then focused on difficult family relationships and that was then used to blame families, and we see families as allies.

“As part of the Empower study we really see families as helping and we want to get services to listen to families as well as users.”

A free event from the Empower research team titled “Harnessing digital for self-management and recovery in psychosis” will take place on 28 March, 9.30am-4.30pm, at the Glasgow Kelvin Hall.