The role of depression apps in the treatment of depression

A growing body of evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can play an important role in the management of people who suffer from depression. Methodologically sound depression apps provide affordable intervention opportunities to people whose access to psychologists may be restricted or who wish to benefit from additional, digitally delivered therapy.

Depression affects about 20% of adults aged 65 and older and is a growing problem amongst younger people. In 2017 the World Health Organization identified depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide and stated that more than 300 million people were affected globally. Depression apps based on sound mindfulness meditation techniques can reach many more of these people than frequently over-burdened health systems can.

The scientific base for mindfulness meditation apps
Several well-designed studies have shown that mindfulness meditation programs can bring relief to people suffering from depression and that these effects match the effects of existing treatments. For example, a recent 2017 Dutch study of a methodologically sound meditation app concluded that “it is possible to achieve durable positive effects on mindfulness, general psychiatric symptoms, and several aspects of quality of life at low costs with smartphone apps for mindfulness”.

A study jointly undertaken by 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. Published in World Psychiatry in September 2017 the study concluded that overall smartphone apps significantly reduced people's depressive symptoms. The 3400 participants between the ages of 18-59 presented with a range of mental health symptoms and conditions, including major, mild and minor depression.

The future
Pooja Chandrashekar of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences envisages a useful role for depression apps in the future.Chandrashekar believes smartphone-based mental health apps represent a unique opportunity to expand the availability and quality of mental health treatment. Although current mobile applications and other remote methods cannot replace professional psychiatric and psychological care yet and only serve as a supplement to professional treatment, in future depression apps could go a long way to addressing the global shortage of psychiatrists and the lack of mental health care access in rural regions.

However, according to Chandrashekar these apps should adhere to certain characteristics: high patient engagement, a simple user interface, trans-diagnostic capabilities for other comorbid psychological illnesses and self-monitoring features.

In the future advanced neural imaging techniques could help scientists to isolate the elements of mindfulness meditation that are effective against depression. Once scientists have teased out these secrets, depression app interventions could be refined to deliver optimal, personalized relief to people who feel depressed. Moreover, real-time monitoring systems will be able to track symptoms as they occur and allow for real-time interventions.

Depression apps and other digital mental health products will most probably change the face of mental healthcare treatment forever. Self-care via depression apps will increase rapidly. Professional care will also see a shift from psychologists’ couches to wing backs in bedrooms as the digital revolution and advanced virtual reality technologies connect physical and mental spaces.

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