Are smartphone apps for depression effective?

Two articles published in 2017 by a group of Australian and American researchers examined the question of whether smart phone apps for depression and anxiety are effective.

In both articles the authors comprehensively analyzed the world medical literature for research articles that evaluated the effectiveness of smart phone delivered interventions for either depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms.

The results clearly support the potential for these types of interventions but also discovered some surprising predictors of an effective app.

In this article we will summarize the findings on apps for depression.

Standalone smartphone apps are more effective than hybrid apps with clinician access

In particular, apps that included access to a mental health clinician were less effective than those without that component. The author suggested that this was because the apps without a mental health clinician component tended to be more immersive experiences. The feedback was more direct and comprehensive from within the app.

Another measure of engagement, how long people used the app, seem to be correlated with effectiveness.

Comparing depression apps based on cognitive behavioral therapy, ACT, mindfulness or behavioral activation

The three most common psychotherapy approaches to treating depression are

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy -which examines patterns of thought and behavior associated with depression and provides feedback to change those patterns
  • ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) – uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.
  • Mindfulness Based Therapy – which adapts mindfulness meditation for people with depression
  • Behavioral Activation – which primarily encourages people to increase activities (pleasurable activities, physical activity, social interactions) which seem to counteract depression

In addition, most psychotherapy approaches incorporate some aspect of mood monitoring, to track response to the treatment.

It seemed that all of these approaches were effective, but people with more severe depression seem to benefit from behavioral activation more than cognitive behavioral or mindfulness-based approaches.

Many of the apps that were tested are not yet available for purchase. These are some that are available…

Top Picks of Apps Available Now

  • Sleepcare – a CBT for insomnia app that has been shown to reduce depression. Top ranked for effectiveness. Only available for iOS.
  • SuperBetter – a Self Esteem and Self Acceptance app that is top ranked for effectiveness and is available for iOS and Android.
  • PTSD Coach – a CBT app that was developed by the National Center for PTSD and has been shown to reduce depression. Medium rated for effectiveness and available for iOS and Android.
  • Headspace – a Mindfulness app that was shown to reduce depression. Medium rated for effectiveness and available for iOS and Android.

For More Information

Smartphone Apps for Bipolar

Sleep Apps and Wearable Devices

Smartphone Mood Tracking Startup

References

Firth J, Torous J, Nicholas J, Carney R, Pratap A, Rosenbaum S, Sarris J. The efficacy of smartphone-based mental health interventions for depressive symptoms: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry. 2017 Oct;16(3):287-298. doi: 10.1002/wps.20472. PubMed PMID: 28941113; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5608852.

Firth J, Torous J, Nicholas J, Carney R, Rosenbaum S, Sarris J. Can smartphone mental health interventions reduce symptoms of anxiety? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2017 Aug 15;218:15-22. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.04.046. Epub 2017 Apr 25. Review. PubMed PMID: 28456072.