Apps really work on anxiety and depression, new analysis shows 

Paper published in latest World Psychiatry concludes that apps can have significant effects on those suffering from depression and general anxiety. 

Depressive and anxiety disorders are relatively common but can have grave consequences, both for sufferers and those around them. They can also place a significant burden on health services and wider impacts on the economy. 

woman holding phone smiling

Photo by Luke Porter

In recent years, a range of apps have been launched to support those with living with such conditions – but there’s been some doubt expressed about their efficacy. A comprehensive study in 2019 concluded that such apps had ‘positive but variable’ impacts, which isn’t exactly the most ringing endorsement. The new study published in World Psychiatry, the official journal of the World Psychological Association (WPA), suggests things have greatly improved. 

For the paper, ‘Current evidence on the efficacy of mental health smartphone apps for symptoms of depression and anxiety. A meta-analysis of 176 randomized controlled trials’, authors Jake Linardon, John Torous, Joseph Firth, Pim Cuijpers, Mariel Messer and Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz conducted a meta-analysis of 176 previously published randomised control trials (RCTS) of the effects of using such apps. 

They found that where apps for treating depression incorporated cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) features or included chatbot tech, effects were ‘significantly larger’ than for those in the control group (ie not using the app). ‘Significantly larger’ effects were also observed in the treatment of anxiety where trials had generalised anxiety as a primary target and where the apps were based on CBT or had mood-monitoring features.  

The effects of the apps were more pronounced at different follow-up stages, and where the authors of the paper left out RCTs with small sample groups or higher risks of bias.

This is all, of course, welcome news – for these particular kinds of symptom. But the authors underline that we should not read too much into the results, concluding that ‘Apps had overall significant although small effects’.

In addition, the authors found evidence that apps have sizeable effects on acrophobia symptoms, moderate effects on social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, a small effect on post-traumatic stress symptoms and a ‘non-significant negative effect’ on panic symptoms – but warned that these results should all be considered with caution as they involve high-risk trials.

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