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The Evolution of Digital-Therapy Technology

Click “less worrying” or “improved sleep” to fine-tune your virtual therapy?

Key points

  • The evolution of new technology-based interventions is important to psychologists and others interested in mental health.
  • Digital treatment apps are now available to help reduce anxiety, boost mindfulness, promote weight loss, or even help prevent suicide.
  • Technology will not replace human helpers, but mental health apps may offer new possibilities to update psychological care.  
Courtesy of Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels (modified by J. Pickens, 2021)
Source: Courtesy of Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels (modified by J. Pickens, 2021)

Treatment of mental disorders is undergoing a shift driven by the widespread availability of digital technology. Digital treatments and modalities differ widely and are driven both by market forces and professional psychological input.

How technology has evolved to assist with a variety of mental health issues deserves attention. This blog previously examined apps aimed at reducing anxiety, boosting mindfulness, or promoting weight loss. However, apps are becoming more specific—for example, there’s an app to counter suicidal thoughts (1). Innovative technology continues to evolve into new digital treatment options (2, 3).

Some digital treatments are delivered telemedicine-style, with face-to-face video counseling sessions. Other apps are made for digital devices and offer a variety of options to tailor therapy to the user’s needs. The challenge of evolving technology combined with the wide range of user characteristics and access issues requires some careful research (4).

The marketplace will continue to see more customizable mental health apps with algorithm-assisted counseling modules. Will you click on “counter worrying” or “better sleep”? This system may allow users to fine-tune the assistance they need—although this menu-driven therapy has limited testing for efficacy or outcomes. Digital mental health apps are better seen as adjuncts to conventional counseling, not as a replacement. Perhaps used as “homework," digital treatment apps offer psychologists a new way to add psychoeducational enhancements to traditional treatment modalities.

For example, an ADAA review of mental health apps assessed the ease of use, effectiveness, evidence-based support, and personalization factors. All apps are not created equal—and some will be better to meet your needs—so do your own homework to select applications that best suit your interests. Technology will not replace human helpers, but mental health apps may offer new possibilities to update psychological care.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

(1) Van Spijker B.A.J., Van Straten A., Kerkhof A.J.F.M. Effectiveness of online self-help for suicidal thoughts: Results of a randomised controlled trial. PLoS One. 2014;9(2):e90118. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24587233/

(2) Craske M.G., Rose R.D., Lang A., Welch S.S., Campbell-Sills L., Sullivan G. Computer-assisted delivery of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders in primary-care settings. Depression and Anxiety. 2009;26:235–242. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19212970/

(3) Titov N., Dear B.F., Staples L.G., Bennett-Levy J., Klein B., Rapee R.M. MindSpot clinic: An accessible, efficient, and effective online treatment service for anxiety and depression. Psychiatric Services. 2015;66:1043–1050. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26130001/

(4)Ben-Zeev D., Schueller S.M., Begale M., Duffecy J., Kane J.M., Mohr D.C. Strategies for mHealth research: Lessons from 3 mobile intervention studies. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research. 2015;42:157–167. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24824311/

ADAA Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/find-help/support/mental-health-apps

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