Smartphone apps may improve symptoms of mild to moderate depression, finds study

The recent explosive growth in smartphone usage, especially among youngsters, has given rise to a unique opportunity to experts to deliver mental health interventions via smartphone applications (apps). So far, there is limited evidence to establish the efficacy of using digitally enabled interventions in the treatment of mental health conditions like depression. To bridge this gap between the availability of digital resources and their effectiveness, a meta-analysis of 18 studies, covering 22 smartphone mental health apps found that the apps might be useful in improving certain symptoms of mild to moderate depression.

The study by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) at Western Sydney University in Australia, Harvard Medical School, The University of Manchester and the Black Dog Institute showed that smartphone apps had a small-to-moderate positive effect in reducing depressive symptoms. The findings, published in the journal World Psychiatry in September 2017, analyzed 3,414 individuals with a variety of mental health conditions, ranging from major depression, mild to moderate depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and insomnia.

The most pronounced improvements were observed in symptoms of mild to moderate depression. The apps appeared to be unsuccessful in improving symptoms of major depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders. However, limited data was available for these conditions.

To gain better insight into smartphone interventions with maximum impact, the researchers separated the studies on the basis of common features. The efficacy of apps delivered entirely via smartphones was significantly higher than apps relying on external components like downloadable training modules. Self-contained apps without features, such as computer or clinician (human) feedback were significantly more effective than apps incorporating such features. Conversely, apps providing users with specific data (summary statistics, progress scores) were found to be more effective than those without this data.

“Instantly accessible and highly effective”

According to Joseph Firth, postdoctoral researcher at NICM and lead author of the study, smartphones are owned by majority of people in developed countries, including youngsters, who are increasingly impacted by depression. He said that along with rapidly-evolving technologies, smartphones may eventually be able to provide “instantly accessible and highly effective treatments for depression”, leading to a lower socio-economic burden of the condition globally.

Jerome Sarris, NICM deputy director and co-author of the study, said that using smartphone apps as a component of “integrative medicine” to treat depression has been shown to be especially useful for enhancing mood and managing symptoms in affected patients. The results demonstrate that such apps can help individuals in monitoring, understanding and managing their own mental health.

An increasing number of teenagers in the United States are now suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental problems. As per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), over 2 million American teens experience depression that affects their daily function, while 6.3 million (30 percent girls and 20 percent boys) have had an anxiety disorder. Researchers say stress related to academic demands, pressure to excel in sports and parents’ high expectations can be some of the factors behind the rising mental problems among this group.

Apps cannot eliminate need for conventional treatment

According to the authors, early signs of efficacy and a rapidly growing body of research make it possible to envision that sustained technological advances will eventually produce scalable and cost-effective digital treatments for depression. They recommended that besides continuing to design and assess the most efficient apps, further research should also focus on “establishing feasible methods for implementing smartphone-based interventions within healthcare systems.”

Despite the study’s promising results, there is still no substantial evidence to prove that only using smartphone apps will eliminate the need for conventional treatments comprising antidepressants and/or psychotherapy. Moreover, the results show that apps are ineffective in treating symptoms of major depression and other chronic conditions.

Seeking help for depression

If you know a teenage boy exhibiting symptoms of depression, White River Academy can help. Located in Delta, Utah, it is the leading therapeutic boarding school that offers help for teenage depression and other mental health problems. Call at our 24/7 helpline or chat online with one of our representatives to know more about treatment for teen depression.

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