Doctors Are Starting To Use Text Messages To Help Treat Depression

Who couldn’t use a little extra support?

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Text messages don’t have to be the bane of your existence. With a little clever programming, they can actually help people with mental health conditions.

The latest evidence comes from a team of researchers at the University of Alberta. They found that automated, twice daily, emotionally supportive text messages were linked to a 24 percent improvement in self-reported mood and a 21 percent boost in self-reported health compared to a control group at the end of three months. (The findings were published in BMC Psychiatry.)

All 73 patients involved in the study had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, an at least a two-week period where sadness, irritability, and other changes in mood lead to disturbances in sleep or appetite, and the loss of the ability to enjoy work or friendship. (In the U.S., about 12 percent of men and 20 percent of women will go through such an episode in their lifetime.) About half of participants received the texts at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. The messages were crafted by cognitive behavioral therapists, with a unique one sent every time, regardless to the particular needs of individual patients.

Example messages included:

• What lies behind you and what lies before you are tiny matters compared to what lies within you. Have faith in yourself and success can be yours.

• Letting go of resentment is a gift you give yourself, and it will ease your journey immeasurably. Make peace with everyone and happiness will be yours.

• Pay attention to activities that have a positive impact on your mood. Note these activities and refer to them when you hit a low point to improve your mood.

The patients in the control group received a message every two weeks thanking them for participating in the study. All of the participants were also invited to participate in follow-up treatments for major depressive disorder, like going to private, in-person cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s important to note that this is an early study; you can’t declare that text messages are the key to treating depression, a disease that will take the second-most years off of human lives by 2030, behind only HIV/AIDS, based on the findings.

While getting emotional support from a scheduled text message might sound weird, so far the research suggests that computer-based cognitive behavioral therapy—where an application takes on the role of therapist and coach—does help people with depression, though the programs suffer high dropout rates and show limited impact in long-term follow-up. A text message approach like this one, however, could be a nice supplement to in-person therapy, and be especially helpful for reaching populations—like those in northern Alberta—that otherwise have limited access to mental health care. With phones being everywhere these days, we might as well use them for good, right?

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