Technology and Mental Health: Opening Research Possibilities

Roberta E. Tovey

Roberta E. Tovey, Director of Communications, MoodNetwork

Technology is so integrated into our lives today that it’s practically impossible to imagine existence without our cellphones, laptops, search engines, and Internet connections. We shop for appliances and clothing online; we talk on our cell phones while we are out running in the morning and while we drive home from work at night; we receive and send dozens or hundreds of emails every day; we do our research with Google; we read our books on Kindles and our newspapers on tablets; our kids do their homework on laptops and text their friends instead of talking to them. Whether or not this is an improvement over the past is irrelevant: we are here and there’s no going back.

It should be no surprise that technology has reached the world of mental health as well.  We’ve read on Care for Your Mind about smartphone apps that can detect changes in mood by tracking the time you spend on the phone, how long you sleep, and the manner in which you text, and about the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance online wellness tracker that allows you to rate your mood and see how it changes over time.

But you may not realize that many researchers now undertake large-scale clinical research trials entirely by computer or mobile device. That means that participants do every step of the study online, from trying out new treatments to measuring how effective they are.

Healthy Mind Healthy You
Healthy Mind Healthy You, an upcoming study set to launch at the end of August, concerns how to reduce people’s stress with mindfulness techniques. Its goal is to determine which of two mindfulness trainings is more effective at reducing stress: a traditional, eight-session training or a “mindfulness light” training that consists of only three sessions.

Healthy Mind Healthy You is an immensely important study for people who live with mood disorders, because stress can trigger or intensify a depressive or manic episode. Mindfulness can help you reduce stress by teaching you how to focus on the present moment while observing your thoughts and feelings in an accepting, non-judgmental way. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean that you deny or ignore your thoughts and feelings; rather, you put distance between yourself and your thoughts, and in so doing you may find that you are better able to cope with them.

The study is launching on MoodNetwork, an online research network dedicated to finding new treatments and techniques to help people with mood disorders live healthier, happier lives. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I spend many of my working hours as MoodNetwork’s director of communications.  MoodNetwork also provides information to and support for people living with mood disorders. But it’s the site’s research studies that I want to talk about here, because studies like this one could not exist without technology.

Here’s how it works
If you join this study, you will learn how to practice mindfulness by doing mindfulness training online. No car or bus ride to get to your training session; no juggling your schedule to be there at a particular time. You just turn on your computer when you’re ready, log on, and your session is waiting for you.

In these sessions, you’ll watch videos of two psychologists from Massachusetts General Hospital as they explain how mindfulness works and describe the techniques that will be taught in the session. You’ll listen to audio files of mindfulness meditations that you can do during the session and practice afterwards, and you’ll have a chance to give feedback about your experience after each exercise. You can also listen to audio recordings of “sample” participants describing their experiences with the various mindfulness exercises.

At the end of each session, you’ll be asked to practice one or more of the mindfulness exercises during the following week. You’ll also get answers to your questions about the exercises and suggestions about how to get more out of them. The program is designed to respond to a range of questions and a variety of responses to the exercises, which means the sessions are different for each person.

A study like this one, if it were done in a traditional manner, with on-site trainings, would have to be quite small because of the cost and logistics of getting participants together in one place. For example, if the study were done at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, only people who lived near enough to the hospital would be eligible. But when we do a study with online interventions, we have the capacity to involve many more (and many more varied) participants. This can lead to more detailed findings that can ultimately help more people.

Another upcoming study, Healthy Hearts Healthy Minds, aims to compare two kinds of empirically-supported treatment programs to see which is more effective at motivating people to increase their physical activities. If you join the study, you will receive a Fitbit®  to measure your daily physical activity. You may also receive either eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, also entirely online. MoodNetwork is partnering with another online network, Health-e-Heart, to learn more about what we can do to help people who have heart disease and depression, which often go hand in hand.

Apps that track your mood, online training, and assessment tools: these are probably just the beginning of how technology will affect how we do research, develop treatments, and monitor mood in the field of mental health. In the short run, online interventions and tools could be enormously helpful to those who find it difficult to travel, like the elderly, or live in communities that do not have mental healthcare, or cannot afford traditional therapy. In the long run, who knows?

Your Turn

  • What would the benefits be of having online participation in a study rather than in-person? What would the downsides be?
  • What would make you want to participate in an online study? Why would you not want to?

Further Reading

  1. MoodNetwork Study Opportunities
  2. Internet Research
  3. National Institute for Mental Health, “Internet-based Research Interventions: Suggestions for Minimizing Risk
  4. Arean et al., “The Use and Effectiveness of Mobile Apps for Depression: Results from a Fully Remote Clinical Trial
  5. Paul et al., “The Internet and Clinical Trials: Background, Online Resources, Examples and Issues” (Canada)
  6. Crisp & K. Griffiths, “Participating in Online Mental Health Interventions: Who Is Most Likely to Sign Up and Why?” (Australia)

Roberta Tovey, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and teacher and MoodNetwork’s director of communications. Roberta, a former college professor of literature and journalism, has written, edited, and worked on website content and design for a variety of organizations and publications. She believes that giving people with mood disorders a voice can lead to a better understanding of—and more effective treatments for—these mental health conditions.

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