Smartphones May Help in Research and Treating Depression

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults have smartphones, and among young adults 18 to 29 years, more than 85 percent have smartphones. Researchers are looking to tap into this growing smartphone use for new ways to improve mental health research and treatment.

One group of researchers conducted a study solely through mobile devices—using them to recruit, screen, enroll, treat and assess participants in a randomized control trial depression study.

Led by Joaquin Anguera, Ph.D., with the University of California, San Francisco, researchers used social media and other methods to recruit participants. They delivered three different depression interventions through mobile apps. Participants used the apps daily and completed monthly assessments.

View more information and resources for depression

While the results of the intervention are still being evaluated, the researchers found that the mobile devices were a successful and cost effective way to reach a wide population, recruit participants, and provide depression interventions. One challenge researchers found was retaining study participants.

Another group of researchers looked at using smartphones to monitor symptoms and help in treatment for people with depression. The study was led by researcher Anh Truong, M.D., with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta on May 14.

Researchers evaluated whether daily mood ratings entered by patients on their phones can help monitor and classify symptoms in people with depression. Over an eight-week period, study participants self-reported their daily moods using a specially developed mobile app called Smartphone and Online Usage Based Evaluation for Depression (SOLVD). Results from the app were compared with results from standard instruments, such as the Patient Health Questionaire-9 (PHQ-9) which were measured biweekly in-person by clinicians.

The smartphone ratings were similar to those using the standard instruments and the ratings were more closely aligned for people with moderate-to-severe depression than individuals with mild depression.

While these studies are preliminary and small, they seem to show that the use of smartphones and apps hold much potential as a tool to help improve research and treatment of depression or other mental health conditions.

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