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Digital interventions can help relieve depressive symptoms

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With a shortage of therapists, help with mental health issues is sought from digital interventions, where elements of psychological treatment are offered through computer programs or mobile apps. According to a study, smart devices can help identify people with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Every year, 400 million people around the world are affected by depression or anxiety, and the coronavirus pandemic has only increased the prevalence of mental health problems. At the same time, there is a shortage of psychotherapists. Digital interventions, where elements of psychological treatment are offered through computer programs or mobile apps, have been proposed as a solution.

In his doctoral thesis in the field of psychology, researcher Isaac Moshe studied the effectiveness of digital interventions in the treatment of mental health problems, with a particular focus on depressive symptoms.

Depression and anxiety tracking with smart devices

A sub-study of the doctoral thesis investigated whether symptoms of depression or anxiety can be identified from data collected by smartphones or wearable devices. A total of 60 adults who used an iPhone or Oura Ring participated in the substudy.

Based on the study, GPS data from the smartphone predicted the user’s depressive symptoms. Subjects who visited the same locations repeatedly had more depressive symptoms than those whose location had more variability. Data collected by the smart rings indicated that the longer the person slept or spent time in bed on average, the more depressive symptoms they experienced. The ring’s data also revealed that the more frequently people woke up at night, the more anxiety symptoms they had.

This study contributes to a growing body of evidence on how data from smartphones and wearable devices could be used to identify people with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although the use of data collected by smart devices is new in the mental health sector, it is not unrealistic to imagine a future where such data will be used, for example, to alert doctors to changes in the state of health of their patients or to help people[…]monitor their own mental health.

Isaac Moshe, researcher

Digital Interventions to Relieve Depressive Symptoms

The most in-depth sub-study of the PhD thesis was an international collaboration that assessed the effectiveness of digital interventions in the treatment of depression by performing a meta-analysis of all previous studies. Digital interventions typically include videos, interactive exercises or text to provide the basic components of psychotherapywhich are then bundled into an online program or smartphone app.

The dataset consisted of 83 randomized controlled trials conducted between 1990 and 2020 involving 15,530 participants.

The results indicate that digital interventions relieved depressive symptoms when offered in public or private healthcare settings. Digital interventions alleviate symptoms in people of all ages, regardless of depression severity or physical comorbidity.

Moshe points out that there are important caveats: in children and adolescents, digital interventions have been less effective than in adults. Having human support alongside digital interventions was also essential for people to complete the programs and thus get the maximum benefit. Additionally, the researchers felt that it was unclear whether digital interventions were indeed as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy, as so few comparative studies on the topic have been conducted so far.

Moshe believes that, overall, digital interventions could be a valuable way to help meet the growing global demand for mental health care.

“They lower the barrier to accessing treatment, allowing anyone with a computer and an internet connection to receive psychotherapy at a time and place that suits them. Digital interventions also require far less time from therapists than traditional therapy, which allows for shorter waiting lists and more people to be treated.