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Digital technology shows success in treating depression

The review found that digital interventions improved depression symptoms in cases where this was followed up by human interactions in the form of video messaging or telephone calls.

Anything connected to the internet — from smartphones to power plant controllers — can be manipulated. — Photo: © DJC
Anything connected to the internet — from smartphones to power plant controllers — can be manipulated. — Photo: © DJC

A review looking into computer and smartphone-based treatments finds them to be effective at reducing symptoms of depression (providing an appropriate piece of validated software is used).  The review, which comes from the University of Helsinki, indicates that digital treatment forms can provide a suitable alternative to address mental health needs (provided this is backed-up by human interaction).

A further advantage is the usefulness of digital media during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when access to conventional health services is more constrained.  

The connection to the pandemic is important since other studies show that many people became more sedentary during the onset of the pandemic, especially with those who spent a higher amount of time sitting as these individuals were found to be likely to have higher symptoms of depression

With such technology, patients undertake online assignments relating to the modules. These are supported by administered questionnaires. The technology allows clinicians to monitor patients’ progress and outcomes in cases where digital interventions include human support.

Digital interventions include teletherapy, where a qualified practitioner can talk directly with the patient through videoconferencing to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy.

To derive at these findings, researchers undertook a meta-analysis of 83 studies testing digital applications for treating depression. The total number of patients assessed exceeded more than 15,000 participants in total. Of these, 80 percent were adults and 69.5 percent were women.

Each of the strands of research had been a randomized controlled trial., designed to compare a digital intervention treatment to either an inactive control (that is, no treatment) or an active comparison condition (like face-to-face psychotherapy). The patients involved had been diagnosed with mild to moderate depression symptoms.

The review found that digital interventions improved depression symptoms in cases where this was followed up by human interactions in the form of video messaging or telephone calls.

One concern with the American Psychological Association published research was the drop-out rate. The success applied to those who completed their digital treatment plan. However, this represented only 25 percent of the sample.

According to Dr. Isaac Moshe, who led the review: “Given the accelerated adoption of digital interventions, it is both timely and important to ask to what extent digital interventions are effective in the treatment of depression, whether they may provide viable alternatives to face-to-face psychotherapy beyond the lab and what are the key factors that moderate outcomes.”

The review outcome appears in the journal Psychological Bulletin, titled “Digital interventions for the treatment of depression: A meta-analytic review.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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