People suffering from depressive symptoms may benefit from online programs or smartphone apps, but a new research review reveals that the human component is still important.
Because of time, distance, money, or stigma, not everyone with depression can quickly get face-to-face counseling. On the other hand, smartphones are practically ubiquitous, and thousands of apps promise to aid in the management of mental health difficulties.
But whether or not they function, and for whom, is one of the unanswered issues.
Researchers looked at 83 previous trials that looked at the effectiveness of digital therapies for depression in the new study. The vast majority of the studies looked at online programs, with a few focusing on smartphone apps.
The researchers discovered that digital assistance was better than nothing and even better than “treatment as usual.”
On the other hand, human guidance seems to make a significant difference. Digital therapies that included human “therapeutic” support, such as comments on homework assignments, outperformed self-help alternatives completely.
It’s unclear how this compares to traditional face-to-face treatment with a professional. According to the study’s authors, three experiments directly compared the two. While the procedures in those experiments appeared to be similar, the researchers believe it is too early to draw any conclusions. Smartphone apps, in particular, require a lot more research.
More than 10,000 apps claim to help with mental health difficulties. According to Isaac Moshe, the analysis’ principal researcher, just four well-conducted trials have evaluated any apps. “This shows that many of the apps are now accessible for download lack a solid evidence base,” said Moshe of the University of Helsinki in Finland.
According to Moshe, apps frequently “borrow” principles from traditional talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy.
“However, there is simply very little information regarding the bulk of apps’ efficacy, how they were built, and their safety and privacy,” he said. The findings, published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin, are based on 83 research involving over 15,500 persons who suffer from mild to moderate depression. Participants were tracked for a year or fewer in the great majority of trials.
Moshe’s team discovered that people frequently dropped out as a problem: Only about 54% of trial participants completed the entire digital intervention on average. In contrast, research has indicated that roughly 85 percent of persons who participate in face-to-face counseling complete it.
According to Moshe, it needs a skilled health care provider, not merely a questionnaire, to diagnose a mental health issue. According to him, some apps offer self-report questionnaires, but they don’t necessarily describe what they are. As a result, people may be led to believe, wrongly, that they have been given a professional diagnosis, according to Moshe.
Some advice is available for folks who want to try an app to help with symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association’s “App Advisor,” a rating system to support mental health experts and patients to evaluate the quality of various applications, is one source, according to Moshe.