Donders Wonders Blog

Can an app help treat depression?

With ever-increasing waiting lists in psychiatry, alternative treatments for depression are in need. Since most people carry a smartphone nowadays, app-based therapy could be an accessible alternative. But do they actually work?

This post is also available in Dutch.

With ever-increasing waiting lists in psychiatry, alternative treatments for depression are in need. Since most people carry a smartphone nowadays, app-based therapy could be an accessible alternative. But do they actually work?

In the Netherlands, 1 out of 5 people suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Many of them don’t seek treatment, sometimes from fear of judgment. Others who actively look for professional help may have to wait for excruciating amounts of time to actually get it. Instantly accessible smartphone apps may offer a solution.

App-based treatment

About 30% of all mobile apps related to health are concerned with diagnosing, supporting or treating mental health issues. And over 1500 of these apps are related to depression.

A review of scientific studies found that smartphone apps could indeed reduce depressive symptoms in people with moderate levels of depression. However, in people with major depression or bipolar disorder, no significant treatment effect was found.

This suggests that apps could be used to help effectively manage less severe forms of depression.

Types of depression apps

Studies, like the one mentioned, above often distinguish between three types of apps, depending on correspondence with a distinct treatment approach: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness training or mood monitoring.

These different types of apps seem to have similarly effective treatment effects. Below, you can find popular examples of each of these types.

Type 1: Cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT uses basic principles from behavioral and cognitive psychology to change unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. Several apps use CBT, such as the Depression CBT Self-Help Guide, which offers several articles and audio to help you deal with depressive symptoms.

Another interesting app is Youper, which employs CBT techniques and allows users to have brief chats with artificial intelligence that are aimed at improving mental health.

Type 2: Mindfulness training

In case you missed it, in an earlier blog we described several reasons for practicing mindfulness. It may not only help with depression but also help with things like pain and insomnia.

A widely used mindfulness app is Headspace, which not only offers a wide range of meditation techniques but also a specific module for addressing depression-related emotions and thoughts.

Type 3: Mood monitoring

Mood monitoring can increase your insight into the relationships between your mood and your activities. Such insight could enable you to make better lifestyle choices and, in some cases, prevent a depressive episode altogether.

An example of an app that incorporates mood monitoring is Daylio, which captures your feelings and activities by having you intuitively click on useful icons.

So yes, a smartphone app may be able to assist you in managing mild depression. Are you feeling a bit blue? Try any (or all) of the apps mentioned here.

But remember, nothing beats a trained professional helping you work through your feelings in person. If you’re going through a particularly rough time, make sure to contact a therapist as well.

Original language: English
Author: Jeroen Uleman
Buddy: Francie Manhardt
Editor: Christienne Gonzales Damatac
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor Translation: Floortje Bouwkamp

Featured image by Gilles Lambert via Unsplash (license).

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