Meta-Analysis Shows Mobile Apps Can Help with Depression

Study shows certain apps may help manage mental health symptoms, but does not address speculation that smartphones may have negative mental health impacts overall.

A team of Australian-led researchers published a new meta-analysis in World Psychiatry this week aimed at examining the efficacy of mental health interventions delivered via smartphone app. Their results were encouraging.

Across 18 eligible randomized control trials that the group identified from recent years, they ended up studying the data of 3,414 total patients between the ages of 18 and 59. The different trials covered various mental health conditions including major depression, mild to moderate depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and insomnia.

The researchers wrote in the study that the work was, to their knowledge, “the first meta-analysis to examine the efficacy of smartphone interventions for depressive symptoms.” It found that, overall, smartphone apps had moderate positive effect on depressive symptoms, which was more pronounced in studies that used inactive rather than active controls.

The most positive, and applicable, results were for those with self reported mild-tomoderate depression, though the work notes that that may be because of limited existing work on such interventions in populations with more sever depression.

Deputy director of Australia’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) Jerome Sarris, one of the study’s co-authors, said in an associated statement that "The data shows us that smartphones can help people monitor, understand and manage their own mental health. Using apps as part of an 'integrative medicine' approach for depression has been demonstrated to be particularly useful for improving mood and tackling symptoms in these patients.”

The researchers, interestingly, noticed a small increase in effectiveness from smartphone-only interventions than in those that incorporated human or other computerized interventions, though that deviation was not statistically significant.

The simultaneous connectedness and discreetness of smartphones may be a positive wrinkle for smartphone-based mental health interventions. Though progress is constant, mental health conditions still carry stigmas. Fortunately, the majority of people, particularly young people, in the developed world carry smartphones, giving them a constant portal to help absent of the physical mandates and constraints of traditional therapy.

While the researchers concluded that “smartphone devices are a promising self-management tool for depression,” they also noted a need for future research to determine just which types of apps could yield the best results.

The study comes as an opposing theory has grown in popularity: the idea that smartphones, in our regular and obsessive usage of them, can actually contribute to depression. Those studies and commentaries pertain to the day-in-day out addictions to social media validation. How that plays into their conscious use to revert depression symptoms, or potentially limits their effectiveness as positive mental health tools, is not addressed in the new study.