The effectiveness of smartphone apps as a tool to treat depression has been proven in an Australian-led study.
Researchers from Australia's National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) and not-for-profit mental health organisation The Black Dog Institute – with support from Harvard Medical School and the University of Manchester – reviewed 18 trials of 22 different smartphone-delivered mental health interventions.
The trials involved more than 3400 male and female participants between the ages of 18-59 with a range of mental health conditions including major depression, mild to moderate depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and insomnia.
The analysis found that smartphone apps – regardless of whether they applied principles of mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy or mood monitoring programs – significantly reduced people's depressive symptoms.
"The majority of people in developed countries own smartphones, including younger people who are increasingly affected by depression," said NICM postdoctoral research fellow Joseph Firth, lead author of the paper, published in World Psychiatry last week.
"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," he added.
The research suggests apps were best for those with mild to moderate depression, as the benefits in major depression have not been widely studied as of yet.
Interestingly, the entirely 'self-contained' apps which don’t rely on clinician and computer feedback, were found to be significantly more effective than 'non-self-contained' apps. The authors suggest this might be due to the comprehensiveness of these particular stand-alone apps.
Despite the promising early results, there is currently no evidence to suggest that using apps alone can outperform standard psychological therapies, or reduce the need for antidepressant medications, they added.
The next steps for researcher would be to closely scrutinize which elements of the apps led to user benefits.
"Given the multitude of apps available – many of them unregulated – it's critical that we now unlock which specific app attributes reap the greatest benefits, to help ensure that all apps available to people with depression are effective," explained Jennifer Nicholas, a PhD candidate at Black Dog Institute and co-author of the paper.
"We have yet to establish the ways in which user engagement, feedback loops, expectancy effects, and individual patient characteristics influence intervention outcomes. Rather than a barrier, these variables represent new opportunities for further research to optimise and personalise smartphone-based interventions," she added.
Depression is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a leading cause of global disability, impacting over 300 million people around the world. In Australia, up to three million people live with anxiety or depression.
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