These Apps Were Built to Treat Depression — And They May Actually Work

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Plenty of smartphone apps claim to improve mental health. But with few actual studies floating around, it's hard to tell if any of them actually work. Now research from Northwestern University claims a suite of apps developed in-house reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by 50 percent.

Each of these 14 interactive apps, collectively called IntelliCare, addresses a specific mental-health need. "They target the range of behavioral strategies that are potentially useful in improving mood and reducing depression and anxiety," says lead researcher David Mohr, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern. "They’re meant to nudge people toward doing things that will benefit them, such as changing negative thinking, setting goals, improving sleep, and exercising."

For instance, iCope lets you scribe encouraging sentiments and have them sent to you at times when you may be feeling down, unmotivated, or stressed out. With Thought Challenger, you type in nagging thoughts that could blow up and tank your mood, and the app helps you analyze them logically to alter your perspective.

These tools are also designed to be very quick and simple, Mohr says, requiring about 20 seconds per use. This makes them more like the apps we use to peruse restaurant reviews or post photos — a departure from many other mental health apps, which are often complex, require a sit-down commitment, and try to address too many angles to be effective.

While IntelliCare sounds great in theory, Mohr’s team wanted to test whether the apps really could calm nerves and elevate mood. They recruited some 100 adults with depression or anxiety symptoms severe enough to qualify them for treatment. Over the course of eight weeks, the participants were coached on how to use the apps, but how often they actually used and engaged with the apps was up to them.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Ninety-six participants stuck with the study, and 95 percent of them downloaded five or more of the 14 apps. They used IntelliCare, on average, four times a day over the eight weeks. By the study’s end, the severity of their anxiety or depression symptoms was slashed in half. In fact, 37 percent showed zero symptoms — a full recovery — while another 40 percent met the criteria for mild or partial recovery.

This study was not without limitations. For one, there was no control group, and the participants knew full well what they were testing. It’s also possible that the very act of engaging with something, regardless of what it was, yielded a therapeutic benefit. We also don’t know whether the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects lasted beyond the study. Mohr is currently working on his next study, which will address all of these limitations and provide more answers.

But if you’re feeling down or perpetually stressed now, there’s no reason to wait. The apps are free and available from Google Play, and iOS versions are coming soon. "I’d recommend trying a few, finding one you like, and sticking with it for a little while," Mohr says. "If you get tired of it, try another one." That’s a hell of a lot cheaper and less commitment than therapy.