As Americans come to grip with a mental health crisis worsened by the pandemic, smartphone 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 and the organization Mental Health America will lead a four-year study of patient experiences with mental-health teletherapy services.

The research is part of $7 million in grants to Talkspace, a provider of digital services for mental health. Nearly $4 million is from a Small Business Innovation Research grant and nearly $3 million comes from the National Institute of Mental Health.

“People have struggled for decades to find proper treatment for depression and anxiety,” said Pat Areán, professor of psychiatry 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 the 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. 

Researchers also 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. 

“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 Tim Althoff, assistant professor of computer science at the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “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.



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