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Digital treatment options may help reduce depression symptoms, study finds

Experts wonder if these treatments will affect the efficacy of in-person therapy sessions

Depressed teen on phone
Photo (c) Mixmike - Getty Images
While virtual therapy services have grown in popularity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study conducted by researchers from the American Psychological Association explored how other digital treatment options can benefit consumers’ mental health. 

According to their findings, alternative styles of therapy that take place online were found to be effective at reducing depression symptoms. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on mental health across the globe,” said researcher Isaac Moshe. “Depression is predicted to be the leading cause of lost life years due to illness by 2030. At the same time, less than 1 in 5 people receive appropriate treatment, and less than 1 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.” 

Digital treatments can benefit patients

The researchers analyzed data from more than 80 earlier studies that included information on more than 15,000 participants. All of the participants were struggling with depression symptoms, and the team compared how different treatment styles impacted the severity of their symptoms. 

The study showed that digital treatment methods were effective at reducing depression symptoms. It’s important to note that these digital interventions aren’t the same as consumers who participate in teletherapy. Instead, patients utilized a computer program that allowed them to complete therapy-based tasks and assignments, watch videos or read articles, and connect with mental health professionals one-on-one. 

Compared to participants who received no mental health treatment, those who completed digital intervention exercises experienced reduced depression symptoms. The benefits were strongest when the participants were able to communicate in some capacity with a health care provider. The researchers explained that having some kind of human interaction while tackling mental health concerns is an important component of successful treatment. 

How does face-to-face therapy compare?

The study also compared the efficacy of digital interventions with face-to-face talk therapy when it came to treating depression symptoms. Ultimately, the researchers found that one didn’t beat out the other; the researchers explained that there weren’t enough earlier studies to create a thorough comparison. However, they said the benefits associated with both traditional therapy and digital therapy treatments were fairly similar. 

Moving forward, the team hopes more work is done in this area to better understand how different therapies and treatment methods benefit consumers. 

“Digital interventions have been proposed as a way of meeting the unmet demand for psychological treatment,” said Moshe. “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.”

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