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How Effective Are Digital Solutions in Treating Depression?

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How Effective Are Digital Solutions in Treating Depression?


For decades, we've relied solely on face-to-face interactions to treat mental illnesses. Patients need to walk into a therapist's office or discuss via live chat. But that has changed over the years. Digital solutions like software programs and mobile apps are now used to address mental health challenges like depression.

Fact is, scientists have known for a while that computer and smartphone-based solutions help reduce signs of depression. The big question is, to what extent? How effective are digital solutions in reducing depression symptoms?

If digital interventions are better than or just as effective as face-to-face consultations and teleconferencing, then we can ideally make the switch, since it's relatively more convenient.

Isaac Moshe, MA, a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, led a new study to answer that question. 

Note: digital interventions are different from teletherapy. Whereas digital treatments refer to interacting with apps, teletherapy involves administering mental health care through live video conferencing.

The Research

The research, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, involved requiring patients to use a software program, app, or website to read, watch, listen and interact with content. The digital interventions comprised a series of lessons, and the participants often receive assignments and questionnaires (forms of human support).

This enabled the clinicians to monitor and analyze the individuals’ progress in cases where the interventions included human support.

Notably, the researchers structured the digital intervention to each individual’s unique problems so that everybody gets what's relevant to them.

According to Moshe, the study was to determine how effective this method of mental health care is, seeing how rapidly health care professionals are adopting it.

The researchers analyzed several studies carried out since 1990 testing how digital applications were used to treat depressions. There were also control groups including, depressed victims who either got no treatment or had face-to-face psychotherapy.

Digital Solutions Not as Effective as Face-To-Face Psychotherapy for Depression

The researchers discovered that digital interventions are indeed effective for treating depression symptoms, but not as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy.

The interventions that included human components like assignments and feedback were the most effective of all. We can attribute this to the fact that the human component increased the chances that the participants would actively participate and complete the intervention. Of course, someone who complies with therapy will definitely obtain better results.

However, there was something disappointing about the findings. Only about 50% of the participants completed their digital intervention. And in real-world settings with actual health care facilities rather than labs, the number was even lower, about 25%.

Not a very good percentage if we expect higher success rates when treating depresssion.

The Bottom Line

The rate of depression is on an uptrend, and sadly, only about 1 in 5 people receive adequate mental health care. In lower socio-economic settings, that percentage drops further. According to Moshe, "a major reason for this is the lack of trained health care providers."

Perhaps, more people can access mental health care if they're made available on smartphones,

"Overall, our findings from effectiveness studies suggest that digital interventions may have a valuable role to play as part of the treatment offering in routine care, especially when accompanied by some sort of human guidance," says Moshe.

In essence, we can't fully make the switch to digital interventions, but they can be a part of the overall depression treatment plan.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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