Researchers from Indiana University (IU) in the US reviewed 21 pre-existing studies with a total of 4,781 participants.
In the past several years, many internet-based apps and websites have made claims to treat depression.
The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, focussed on those applications that provide treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing thought patterns and behaviour to alleviate symptoms of depression and other mental disorders.
Previous studies had examined the effectiveness of individual internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy apps, or iCBT, using a range of methods.
Until this study, however, no review had examined whether the effects of these treatments were inflated by excluding patients with more severe depression or additional conditions such as anxiety or alcohol abuse.
“Before this study, I thought past studies were probably focused on people with very mild depression, those who did not have other mental health problems, and were at low risk for suicide,” said Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces, a professor at IU.
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Stress and frustration can lead to depression, further affecting mental health.
While it is imperative to consult with a medical professional if symptoms of depression are noticed, certain modification in one’s lifestyle can help in combatting mild depression. However, moderate to severe depression requires the treatment with medications.
Nevertheless lifestyle changes do help in recovering as well as preventing the condition and future episodes.
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“To my surprise, that was not the case. The science suggests that these apps and platforms can help a large number of people,” Lorenzo-Luaces said.
Internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy apps are an important new tool for addressing a major public health issue: that individuals with mental health disorders like depression far outnumber the mental health providers available to treat them.
“Close to one in four people meet the criteria for major depressive disorder,” he said.
“If you include people with minor depression or who have been depressed for a week or a month with a few symptoms, the number grows, exceeding the number of psychologists who can serve them,” he added.
People with depression are also expensive for the health care system, he added.
Through the study, the researchers determined that internet-based therapy platforms effectively alleviate depression.
A central question was determining whether previous studies distorted the strength of these systems’ effects by excluding people with severe depression.
The conclusion was that the apps worked in cases of mild, moderate and severe depression.
Many of the studies in the analysis compared use of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy apps to placement on a wait list for therapy or the use of a “fake app” that made weak recommendations to the user.
In these cases, the iCBT apps worked significantly better.
“This is not to say that you should stop taking your medication and go to the nearest app store,” said Lorenzo-Luaces, who said both face-to-face therapy and antidepressants may still prove to be more effective than the iCBT apps alone.