Review: Depression therapy apps make a difference

By Dave Muoio
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Smartphone apps designed for those with depression can significantly reduce users’ symptoms, according to the results of a recently published meta-analysis. While the findings are limited to those with mild-to-moderate depression, the apps’ consistent effect across age and gender suggest that the benefits are wide reaching.

"The majority of people in developed countries own smartphones, including younger people who are increasingly affected by depression," Joseph Firth, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University, said in a statement. "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."

Firth and colleagues’ electronic database search identified 18 randomized controlled trials of app interventions targeting primary depression, comorbid depression, or depressive symptoms. Studies comparing the apps’ effect against control groups receiving no mental health interventions (inactive controls) and control groups that received some means of equivalent time and attention that did not involve mental health apps (active controls) were included in the review.

Across 22 depression intervention apps and more than 3,400 participants aged 18 to 59 years, the researchers found a significant reduction in depression symptoms following use of the apps, with no evidence of publication bias. The interventions were moderately effective when compared against inactive controls, but somewhat less so when gauged against active control groups. However, the researchers noted, there is still no evidence to suggest that the apps alone would outperform standard psychological interventions. The apps’ impact on users with major depression is also still unclear.

Still, the researchers did see a clear boost in performance from apps that they classified as “self-contained,” as opposed those that relied on clinicians, computer feedback, or other outside contribution. They hypothesized that this effect is likely due to the comprehensiveness and robustness of the self-contained apps mores than a statement on multi-part care. Analysis comparing apps that employed principals of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to those applying principles of mindfulness found no significant differences in user symptoms.

"The data shows us that smartphones can help people monitor, understand and manage their own mental health,” Jerome Sarris, coauthor and deputy director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University, said in a statement. “Using apps as part of an 'integrative medicine' approach for depression has been demonstrated to be particularly useful for improving mood and tackling symptoms in these patients.”

Other researchers involved in the study noted the need for research identifying which specific app features are making the most impact, and feasible methods for employing these interventions within health care systems.

Last year, MobiHealthNews published a comprehensive roundup of the numerous health tech startups innovating the behavioral health space. Last week, Pear Therapeutics received de novo FDA clearance for their reSET substance abuse digital therapeutic. More recently, HealthRhythms received $2.1 million from the NIH to continue work on its user-specific mental health intervention platform, which chief technology office Mark Matthews said has been very successful in beta testing.