Digital-based treatments effective at reducing symptoms of depression, study finds

Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash

A new study found that computer-and smartphone-based treatments seem to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression, offering a promising alternative to address the growing mental health needs brought on by novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

 The research, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, found that while digital interventions improved depression symptoms over control conditions, the effect was not as strong as that found in a similar meta-analysis of face-to-face psychotherapy. The digital treatments that involved a practitioner, whether in the form of feedback on assignments or technical assistance, were the most effective in reducing depression symptoms.

 Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 83 studies testing digital applications for treating depression, dating back to 1990 and involving more than 15, 000 participants in total. Adults comprised 80 percent of the study, with 69.5 percent being women. The studies were randomized controlled trials comparing a digital intervention treatment to either an inactive control (e.g., waitlist control or no treatment at all) or an active comparison condition (e.g., treatment as usual or face-to-face psychotherapy) and primarily focused on individuals with mild to moderate depression symptoms.

 Digital interventions typically require patients to log in to a software program, website, or app to read, watch, listen to, and interact with content structured as a series of modules or lessons. Individuals often receive homework assignments relating to the modules and regularly complete digitally administered questionnaires relevant to their presenting problems. This allows clinicians to monitor patients’ progress and outcomes in cases where digital interventions include human support. Digital interventions are not the same as teletherapy. Teletherapy uses videoconferencing or telephone services to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy.

 “The year 2020 marked 30 years since the first paper was published on a digital intervention for the treatment of depression,” said Isaac Moshe, MA, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, in a statement. It also marked an unparalleled inflection point in the worldwide conversion of mental health services from face-to-face delivery to remote, digital solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.”