Treating anxiety and depression with digital mental health therapy has a significant and long-term benefit for recovery, new research amongst NHS service users suggests.
The research was undertaken by SilverCloud Health, with the School of Psychology at Trinity College, the University of Dublin, and health economics analysis from the University of Sheffield.
Published at a time of increased anxiety and impact on mental health from the COVID-19 pandemic, the research emphasises how digital cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) as part of wider psychological care can deliver strong clinical improvements and recovery. More than half of those with a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression recovered after three months, according to the study published in npj Digital Medicine.
The findings, involving more than 360 service users in England on the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, endorse the role that digital mental health can play in treating depression and anxiety disorders.
The study comes as mental health providers anticipate a significant increase in a range of disorders linked to anxiety and depression stemming from the pandemic and emerging as the lockdown continues to ease.
The findings underline the benefits from long-term outcomes and cost-effectiveness of including digital mental health interventions as part of clinical care, including stepped care models such as IAPT. Supporting economic analysis based on criteria suggested by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) indicated that over a 12-month period such health support could be cost-effective. Currently, iCBT accounts for just 7% of treatments completed within an IAPT programme.
The study participants were service users at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which is one of NHS England’s Global Digital Exemplars for transforming patient care and engagement through new technology.
Dr Derek Richards, chief science officer at SilverCloud Health and co-director of the E-Mental Health Research Group, Trinity College, the University of Dublin, said: “This is important, large-scale research that demonstrates how digitally-provided cognitive behavioural therapy can enhance a wider mental health therapy programme calibrated to an individual’s needs.
“Due to its results on long-term improvement, recovery and cost-effectiveness, at a time of increasing demand for psychological and behavioural healthcare, digital mental health care should be viewed as a standard part of psychological support and no longer simply as an innovative approach.
“As a result of the global pandemic, many individuals within communities are facing mental health challenges and iCBT can play an important part complementing current mental healthcare services, increasing their reach and capacity, and helping support and treat more people.”
As part of the study an IAPT treatment group was given eight weeks of supported digital mental health intervention to treat depression and anxiety, compared with a waiting list control group that did not receive the treatment initially.
Psychiatric interviews of participants at three months after treatment found that, overall, 56.4% no longer had a diagnosis of anxiety, depression or a joint diagnosis. A further significant decrease in symptom scores was seen after 12 months, on average a 50% decrease.
The study report in npj Digital Medicine states: “In a society where the prevalence for depression and anxiety is rising and demand is outpacing what mental health services are able to offer, embedding digital interventions as treatment alternatives increases accessibility and service efficiency, which has the potential to be cost-effective for the health care system.”
Judith Chapman, development director at Berkshire Healthcare, said: “By our joint working at Berkshire Healthcare Talking Therapies with SilverCloud Health in a long-term randomised controlled trial, we have been able to measure the effectiveness of iCBT within an IAPT setting. The findings have proven the effectiveness of treating anxiety and depression using iCBT with excellent patient outcomes.
“The trial has demonstrated that digital treatment has a strong place alongside conventional face-to-face mental health therapy, which is not a second-class treatment offer but a robust evidence-based and accessible treatment for the population, especially during the unprecedented and challenging times we are experiencing due to COVID-19.”