Depression trial puts smartphones to the test
Published: 29 November, 2017
The Black Dog Institute will lead Australia’s largest ever clinical trial into the effectiveness of mental health apps for preventing depression in adolescents.
The Black Dog Institute has received $2.18 million to lead the ‘Future Proofing’ trial, as announced by Federal Minister for Health The Hon. Greg Hunt today.
The trial will involve 20,000 teenagers and test whether mental health apps can effectively ‘inoculate’ Year 7 students from developing depression after 12 months.
Led by Black Dog Institute Director, Professor Helen Christensen, researchers from Black Dog’s Digital Dog team will examine sensor data from smartphones such as GPS, use machine learning analysis and link this to hospital and birth records to develop reliable signals to flag the onset of depressive symptoms in young people.
Following up on the students’ progress over five years, the Future Proofing study will also examine whether cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)-based apps are effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, eating disorders, suicide risk and psychotic symptoms, as well as its impact on academic performance, sleep, physical health and drug and alcohol use.
“This study will be unlike any previously undertaken in youth mental health in Australia, both in terms of scale and potential impact,” said Professor Christensen.
“Trials of this size and magnitude are commonplace for cardiovascular disease and cancer, but never for mental health.
“From bullying to moment-by-moment interpersonal interactions, our research will examine in incredible detail the factors that contribute to negative mental health outcomes in adolescents.
“Crucially, this trial will be timed at a key life transition stage – from primary to high school – which is known to be a particularly stressful time for students and their families.”
While past trials of smartphone apps for improving teenagers’ mental health have yielded positive results, these studies have been small, require extensive technical setup in schools, and don’t fully utilise the enhanced capabilities of new smartphone technologies.
Previous studies have shown that under optimal conditions, depression treatments could reduce 36 percent of global disease burden and 60 percent of people respond to treatment.
“With one in five Australians experiencing mental illness each year, treatment alone will not be enough to deal with this mounting public health problem,” said Professor Christensen.
“Up to 75 percent of mental illnesses emerge before the age of 25, making early intervention in the teenage years critical to prevent the onset of poor mental health outcomes over the life span.”
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project is one of 47 announced today as part of the Federal Government’s $53 million commitment to innovative mental health research.
The Future Proofing trial will begin in 2019 and involves researchers from Black Dog Institute, UNSW Sydney, Deakin University, Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, University of South Australia and Macquarie University.
Emily Cook, Black Dog Institute, 0455 100 277 or send an email