How Digital Interventions Improve Mental Health

March 16, 2019
Tracey Walker
Tracey Walker

A new study has revealing findings about using an automated web and mobile well-being intervention to treat mental health.

Mental illnesses are common in the United States-nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016), according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Mental health is tied to many health-relevant outcomes, including immunity, adherence to treatment plans, self-care (e.g., healthy diet and exercise), and frequency of reliance on emergency department visits (rather than visiting a doctor earlier on).

A study published in International Journal of Wellbeing, shows that there are benefits in treating mental health with the use of digital interventions. Researchers from Vassar College, Hiram College, Case Western Reserve University, and Happify, found that in a randomized controlled trial, regular use of a publicly-available app and website offering evidence-based mental health and well-being interventions resulted in significant improvements in depression, anxiety, and resilience.

In this study, the researchers sought to evaluate the app and website’s effectiveness by comparing change in well-being over the eight-week study period between those randomly assigned to use either the app and website or an active comparison condition that provided users with psychoeducational content, such as information about why certain mental health topics are important, and references to relevant scientific studies.

“We also tried to estimate and account for users' natural improvement over time by distinguishing between those who used their randomly assigned platform to complete a minimum of two to three activities per week (the recommended usage level) and those who used their assigned platform at less than that amount (the low usage level),” says study author Acacia Parks, PhD, chief scientist at Happify.

Related: Community Organization Model Tackles Veterans’ Mental Health Issues

In terms of well-being, the researchers looked at change over time in three separate outcomes: depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and resilience. They found, for all three outcomes, that participants who used the automated web and mobile wellbeing intervention at the recommended level of a minimum of two to three activities per week had significantly lower depression, significantly lower anxiety, and significantly greater resilience after the eight-week study period, than participants who used the app and website at a low level or participants in the psychoeducation comparison condition (regardless of usage).

“In addition, we also found that in terms of depression and anxiety, a greater percentage of participants who used the automated web and mobile wellbeing intervention at the recommended level saw their symptoms reduced by one or more severity categories (e.g., moving from moderate to mild depressive symptoms), compared to participants in the other groups,” Parks says. “[Digital] solutions have the potential to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, as we found in this study-and, because we know depression and anxiety are so closely tied to these outcomes, it is likely that in doing so, we improve an individual's chances of fending off illnesses, taking good care of their bodies, and dealing with health problems as soon as they arise.”

According to Parks, there are three key research-based approaches for improving mental health that healthcare executives can look for:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

  • Positive psychology

  • Mindfulness

“All of these have been proven to be effective when delivered digitally as well as through more traditional human or self-help solutions,” Parks says. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy is about noticing the thoughts you have in response to stressful events, and learning to argue back with those thoughts when they are distorted or unhelpful. Positive psychology is a collection of skills for cultivating positive emotion and meaning in life. Mindfulness refers to the practice of living in the present moment, and accepting negative feelings rather than trying to fight or avoid them. Each of these three approaches has a robust literature behind it-and each is ideal for some people, and not for others.”