A new study has concluded that smartphone apps for depression actually work.
The study’s authors claim that by being cost-effective, readily available and even customizable to the users, mobile apps effectively represent “a promising self-management tool for depression.”
One of the most significant public health concern worldwide, depression and major depression affect an estimated 4.7 per cent of adults in Canada, a rate which grows to 11 per cent for young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. A range of therapeutic approaches are available for treating depression, often combining pharmaceutical intervention with psychotherapy tailored to the needs of the patient.
But cost and ease of access to treatment turn out to be significant barriers to dealing with depression, with further issues arising from subclinical or mild depression that goes untreated. For these reasons, many health experts see promise in technology to lend a digital hand in addressing depression within society.
By now, there are literally hundreds of mobile apps available, all promising to help people deal with any number of mental health conditions and symptoms. For depression, such apps often involve strategies and advice on topics such as de-stressing and reducing self-criticism, along with guidance in areas such as building self-confidence or helping with sleep training.
The question is, are they any good?
Yes, says new research from the University of New South Wales and the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia, which finds that, for depression, at least, apps can be beneficial.
Researchers analyzed 18 previously-conducted randomized control trials involving a total of 22 different smartphone apps and altogether involving 3,414 study participants. The results showed that depressive symptoms were reduced more from the use of smartphone apps versus control conditions.
“The main analysis found that smartphone interventions had a moderate positive effect on depressive symptoms, with no indication of publication bias affecting these findings,” say the study’s authors, whose work is published in the journal World Psychiatry.
The study found that apps based on the commonly-employed psychotherapy called cognitive behavioural therapy were successful at reducing depressive symptoms, as were apps that used aspects of mindfulness training and/or mood monitoring in their programs.
As well, apps that involved in-app feedback, such as summary statistics or progress scores proved to have greater positive effect, while, surprisingly, the apps which involved in-person (i.e. human) feedback components fared more poorly than ones without this feature.
While not fully a substitute for standard psychological therapies, the results are promising, say the researchers. The ubiquity of smartphones means that mental health apps can now offer an accessible and affordable option for patients who have difficulty accessing in-person treatment, says the study’s lead author, Joseph Firth of the National Health and Medical Research Council.
“The majority of people in developed countries own smartphones, including younger people who are increasingly affected by depression,” said Firth, in a press release. “Combined with the rapid technological advances in this area, these devices may ultimately be capable of providing instantly accessible and highly effective treatments for depression, reducing the societal and economic burden of this condition worldwide.”