Researchers, Talkspace team to study digital psychotherapy

The focus is discerning which smartphone-based approaches best benefit patients who are receiving care for mental health.

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As Americans come to grip with a mental health crisis worsened by the pandemic, smartphone and other digital-health applications are getting more scrutiny. Researchers welcome the advent of telepsychiatry to reach more people but want to ensure that these digital tools are appropriately tested.

Investigators at the University of Washington, Talkspace, a provider of digital services for mental health, and the organization Mental Health America will collaborate on two multi-year studies of patient experiences with mental health teletherapy services.

The research is part of $7 million in grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. UW will receive a little over $3 million for its role.

"People have struggled for decades to find proper treatment for depression and anxiety,” said Pat Areán, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UW School of Medicine. Message-based care has great potential to be the solution, and I am excited to partner with Talkspace to study this further.”

In one study, an estimated 1,000 participants will be randomized to either a weekly video session with their therapist (no messaging, except to schedule appointments) or to daily messaging (no live video sessions), which are equivalent to telepsychotherapy, an evidence-based method of care. The project will track outcomes, engagement, ratings of the therapist, type of treatment provided, and other variables between the two care approaches to examine potential differences. The project will be HIPAA-compliant and patient information will be de-identified to protect the privacy of all participants. Areán is the principal investigator for this study.

In the other study, researchers will investigate the traits of individuals who benefit most from digital therapy, and identify ways to personalize their entry to teletherapy. They will use sophisticated computational tools to better understand the actions people take when they first start to experience mental health challenges and are considering psychotherapy. The findings will be used to help more people anticipate benefit from support, including therapy, and to explore the optimal dose of digital mental health. Principal Investigators include Areán, Michael Pullmann, research associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the UW School of Medicine, and Tim Althoff, assistant professor of computer science at the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

"We have been studying how people engage with health and diet apps, and found that people often use them until they reach their goal. But if they start to relapse, for instance, they start to gain weight again, then they often come back to the app,” said Althoff. “We want to know whether this is true for digital mental health tools, as well, and how we can best support people in their journey.”

Talkspace is a digital platform that connects licensed therapists and psychiatrists with people seeking mental healthcare. With Talkspace, clients can send their therapists text, video, and voice messages anytime, from anywhere, and engage in live video sessions. To date, more than 2 million people have used the service, and more than 40 million people have health insurance that covers Talkspace.

“At a time when America’s mental health is in crisis, it is crucial that experts find the most optimal solution for patients, including how they seek therapy, and the various forms of care and treatment available,” said Neil Leibowitz, chief medical officer at Talkspace.

The grant number for the first study mentioned is R44MH124334. The grant number for the second study mentioned is R01MH125179.

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Tags:psychiatry & behavioral healthdepressionbehavioral therapydigital devices

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