There’s a growing movement across the country calling for people to put down their mobile devices to promote human connectivity. However, there is a lack of awareness that smartphones can help individuals deal with a prevalent condition that often precludes them from social interaction: depression.
A recent study led by top research institutions found that certain smartphone apps were effective in significantly reducing depressive symptoms in patients struggling with mental disorders. Researchers at Australia’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine, along with colleagues at Harvard Medical School, the University of Manchester and the Black Dog Institute, published their findings in a paper titled, “The efficacy of smartphone-based mental health interventions for depressive symptoms: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.”
The study aggregated and analyzed 18 eligible randomized controlled trials of 22 smartphone apps. These apps were then implemented in tests involving more than 3,400 male and female participants between the ages of 18 and 59. Participants’ mental conditions ranged from minor to major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and insomnia. Treatment offered by the apps varied, with participants receiving daily emails encouraging prompt engagement, audio exercises, and the promotion of learnt techniques to deal with challenging situations.
Joseph Firth, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at NICM, wrote, “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 continues, “the increasing media promotion and accessibility of apps for mental health now presents a ‘duty of care’ issue towards ensuring that people have information and understanding of evidence-based digital treatments for depression.”
As smartphones have become ubiquitous, and as health systems consolidate, employing mobile health solutions may provide a method for treating underserved patient populations. The NICM-led study highlights the potential opportunity to provide affordable and highly accessible care to patients, as nearly half of the world’s population lives in countries with a physiatrist/patient ratio of 1 to 100,000.
While the debate will no doubt continue around time spent on screens, the counterargument has emerged that digital therapies can augment physical and mental well-being. However, there is no evidence to suggest that using apps alone can outperform standard psychological therapies or reduce the need for antidepressant medications.