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As rates of depression rise with the COVID-19 pandemic, with some studies suggesting rates have tripled in people in the United States since April, there’s an urgent need to offer effective treatment options for depression that are available on a larger scale, especially as racial injustices and physically distancing from the current pandemic make access to treatment even more difficult.
The idea of having mental health tools at people’s fingertips via smartphones isn’t new, yet understanding what works in effectively treating depression in a completely remote environment is an unknown frontier for researchers and clinicians.
A team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is starting new research to understand whether a mobile well-being app, the Healthy Minds Program, can improve depression for people living with the condition. The study is in partnership with Healthy Minds Innovations, the external affiliated nonprofit associated with the Center for Healthy Minds, that has created the program. The project is made possible from a generous grant from Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
“Although treatments like antidepressant medications can stimulate new neural pathways in the brain, actually healing the brain systems affected by depression often depends on practicing new behaviors that are counter to the thought patterns and processes at play in depression,” says Heather Abercrombie, Scientific Director of the Center, an emotion researcher and a licensed psychologist with decades of experience studying the condition. “This is why a skill-building component that can be administered daily via a device many of us have and are looking at already – our smartphones – is particularly exciting.”
Researchers hope to expand beyond what’s known about existing meditation-based interventions that primarily teach skills of paying attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in the present moment. They will investigate other contemplative practices aimed at additional components of well-being such as building healthy connections with others, understanding the nature of one's self identity, and clarifying purpose and motivation. These components are all integrated into the Healthy Minds Program app.
The research will track symptoms and the emotional well-being of people living with depression who take part in a 4-week randomized controlled trial.
"A skill-building component that can be administered daily via a device many of us have and are looking at already – our smartphones – is particularly exciting"
Simon Goldberg, an assistant professor of counseling psychology and faculty at the Center for Healthy Minds who is also a licensed psychologist, will co-lead the work with Abercrombie and others at the Center. He says this research is unique because it will go beyond “self-report” – the surveys where people answer questions about how they’re doing or feeling that can be biased.
“In addition to studying effects on self-reported depression, we’re also interested in using machine learning and computer science tools to make sense of the data we receive,” Goldberg says. “For instance, are there clues that people are using language that is less focused on themselves like the word ‘I’, which could represent an improvement in self-referential thinking, which is common in depression?”
Additionally, the research will look at measures on smartphones that can capture people’s ability to distinguish differences in patterns as well as ability to pay attention – two studied measures that have shown to be helpful in targeting areas of the brain associated with depression in previous in-person studies in the lab.
"In addition to studying effects on self-reported depression, we’re also interested in using machine learning and computer science tools to make sense of the data we receive”
The group is in the process of preparing for the study, which should launch in Summer 2021.