Web therapy helps first-year medical students fight depression

Monday, November 23, 2015 - 8:06pm

Upon beginning residency, newly licensed doctors often feel a combination of inferiority, stress and sleeplessness that can lead to an increase in suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, a recent study co-conducted by a University researcher shows the benefit of a new web-based tool to lessen, or even eliminate, these feelings.

The study was published in early November in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Researchers concluded that a free cognitive behavioral therapy website can cut the rate of suicidal thoughts in first-year residents in half. The program included four weekly interactive modules that covered topics like understanding the links between thoughts, emotions and behaviors and teaching the ability to challenge unrealistic thoughts.

Srijan Sen, associate professor of psychiatry at the University, and Constance Guille, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, led the research team. The web-based tool, called MoodGYM, offers the same type of therapy that mental health professionals offer in therapy sessions. It was developed at Australian National University.

To carry out the study, Sen and Guille requested the help of 199 medical interns, another term for first-year residents. Half of the interns were assigned to use MoodGYM, and the other half received general information on depression and suicide and contact information for mental health professionals.

Of those who just got general information about mental health, one out of five thought about suicide sometime in their medical internship year. However, only one out of eight of the interns who used the MoodGYM app thought about suicide. Additionally, most assigned to the app continued to use it all year.

Guille said a focus of this study is to emphasize the importance of depression prevention rather than treatment after its onset.

“We are showing that we can prevent the onset of suicide ideation, as opposed to treating it once it is already there,” Guille said. “It is much more difficult to get people into treatment once they have mental health problems, so there is an advantage to preventing the onset.”

Sen said one of the biggest implications of this finding is that web-based cognitive behavioral therapy, and tools like it, can be used to help others in high-stress, high-pressure situations. He said this could extend to undergraduates on campus in Ann Arbor.

“I think that to some extent, it can extend down to college students and anyone in school,” Sen said. “This shows the value of these web-based tools and potentially also smartphone apps and nontraditional mental health resources because they would allow students to access them on their own time without having to fit it into the schedule of a traditional therapist.”