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Technology opens new doors for depression and anxiety treatment

May 11 2016

Depression and anxiety can be debilitating, sometimes making it so hard to function that it’s a challenge to leave the house. Fortunately new online programs are bringing therapy and support to mobile devices and laptops, opening a new world of access to mental health care. The results are promising for individuals who have had to deal with the stigma of mental illness and lack of access to appropriate resources.

woman in her living roomHelp for depression and anxiety

Aetna recently conducted a pilot program to explore how employers can use digital programs to help employees who are suffering from depression, anxiety or substance use. The program was offered to the thousands of employees of a large employer customer. Employees who used the digital program during the six-month pilot had reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms three times greater than the control group. Participants in the pilot who had access to the full program were encouraged to use a website or phone app to learn new ways to manage depression, anxiety, stress or substance use.

The program used tools that psychologists have proven are effective for combating depression and other mental health symptoms, including cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness practices. Employees using the digital program also received regular e-mails with evidence-based tips and encouragement.

“Depression and anxiety can be very lonely conditions,” explained Dr. Hyong Un, Aetna’s chief psychiatric officer.  “We found that this approach worked particularly well because people could engage privately when they needed to, yet could also choose to join a community of others facing similar struggles when they wanted to.”

How the pilot worked

On a voluntary ‘opt-in’ basis, employees were invited to participate in a randomized controlled trial evaluating a digital cognitive behavioral health program provided by myStrength. Those who opted in were then randomized to either an intervention group who received immediate access to the full myStrength program, or a ‘control’ group who received six month delayed access to the full program but did receive a series of educational e-mails about depression and anxiety.

After the six month study period, the two groups were compared to each other relative to objective assessment of depression and anxiety status. More than 160 employees, all of whom are Aetna members, chose to participate in the pilot.

While many individuals are reluctant to seek out face-to-face treatment for depression, advances in internet-based programs provide a compelling alternative to in-person treatment.

While employees in both groups were highly engaged with the pilot, those using the full myStrength program demonstrated a particularly strong connection, with 93 percent of people in this group regularly checking in with program materials. That engagement level was 20 percentage points higher than the control group.

Although both the study and control groups showed some improvement in measured depression scores, the improvement in the study group – a 55% reduction – was significantly greater than the improvement in the control group, which saw a 22% reduction. Study group participants also had similarly significant reductions in anxiety levels compared to the control group.

Editor’s note: In addition to the pilot program, Aetna has made the digital program from myStrength available to many Aetna members who have Resources for Living as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefit.