woman frustrated with smartphone

Depression symptoms reduced with computer and smartphone treatments

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Computer and smartphone-based treatments for depression have been shown to reduce symptoms, although it’s unclear how well they compare with traditional face-to-face psychotherapy.

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.

The study’s lead author, Isaac Moshe from the University of Helsinki, said: “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.”

Moshe added: “Digital interventions have been proposed as a way of meeting the unmet demand for psychological treatment. As digital interventions are being increasingly adopted within both private and public health care systems, we set out to understand whether these treatments are as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy, to what extent human support has an impact on outcomes and whether the benefits found in lab settings transfer to real-world settings.”

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 83 studies testing digital applications for treating depression, dating as far back as 1990 and involving more than 15,000 participants in total, 80 per cent adults and 69.5 per cent women.

They found that digital interventions improved depression symptoms over control conditions, but the effect was not as strong as that found in a similar meta-analysis of face-to-face psychotherapy.

There were not enough studies in the current analysis to directly compare digital interventions to face-to-face psychotherapy, and researchers found no studies comparing digital strategies with drug therapy.

The digital treatments that involved a human component, whether in the form of feedback on assignments or technical assistance, were the most effective in reducing depression symptoms.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on mental health across the globe. Depression is predicted to be the leading cause of lost life years due to illness by 2030,” Moshe said. “At the same time, less than one in five people receive appropriate treatment and less than one in 27 in low-income settings. A major reason for this is the lack of trained health care providers.

“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.”

Earlier this month, another team revealed an AI that is capable of detecting behavioural signs of anxiety with over 90 per cent accuracy.

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