New research has confirmed that smartphone apps can be an effective treatment option for depression.
Depression is the most prevalent mental disorder and a leading cause of global disability, with mental health services worldwide struggling to meet the demand for treatment.
In an effort to tackle this challenge, researchers from Australia’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Harvard Medical School, the University of Manchester, and the Black Dog Institute in Australia examined the efficacy of smartphone-based treatments for depression.
The researchers reviewed 18 randomized controlled trials that examined 22 different smartphone-delivered mental health interventions.
The studies involved more than 3,400 people between the ages of 18-59 with a range of mental health symptoms and conditions, including major depression, mild to moderate depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and insomnia.
Published in World Psychiatry, the study found that smartphone apps significantly reduced people’s depressive symptoms.
Lead author of the paper, NICM postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Joseph Firth said this was an important finding, which presents a new opportunity for providing accessible and affordable care for patients who might not otherwise have access to treatment.
“The majority of people in developed countries own smartphones, including younger people who are increasingly affected by depression,” he said.
“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.”
Jerome Sarris, NICM deputy director, highlighted the importance of the findings for opening up non-stigmatizing and self-managing avenues of care.
“The data shows us that smartphones can help people monitor, understand, and manage their own mental health,” he said. “Using apps as part of an ‘integrative medicine’ approach for depression has been demonstrated to be particularly useful for improving mood and tackling symptoms in these patients.”
According to the study’s findings, the apps may be best for people with mild to moderate depression.
The researchers found no difference in apps that apply principles of mindfulness compared to cognitive behavioral therapy or mood-monitoring programs.
However, interventions that used entirely self-contained apps — meaning the app did not rely on other aspects, such as clinician and computer feedback — were found to be significantly more effective than non-self-contained apps.
The researchers suggested this might be due to the comprehensiveness of these particular stand-alone apps rather than the combination of therapies.
Despite the promising results, there is no evidence to suggest that using apps alone can outperform standard psychological therapies or reduce the need for antidepressant medications, the researchers advise.
Jennifer Nicholas, a Ph.D. candidate at Black Dog Institute and co-author of the paper, said now that it’s confirmed that apps can be effective for managing depression, future research must investigate which features produce these beneficial effects.
“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.”