New crowdsourced tool to better ease depression, anxiety

ANI| Updated: Mar 31, 2015, 20:30 PM IST


Washington: A team of researchers has come up with a new peer-to-peer networking tool that enables sufferers of anxiety and depression to build online support communities and practice therapeutic techniques.

In a study involving 166 subjects who had exhibited symptoms of depression, the MIT researchers compared their tool with an established technique known as expressive writing. The new tool yielded better outcomes across the board, but it had particular advantages in two areas: One was in training subjects to use a therapeutic technique called cognitive reappraisal, and the other was in improving the mood of subjects with more severe symptoms.

Lead researcher Rob Morris said that they really wanted to see two things. Hypothesis one is "could people get clinical benefits from it?" and two is "will people be engaged and use this regularly?"

Morris added that there's a lot of great work in building web apps and mobile apps to provide psychotherapy without a therapist in the loop, it's these self-guided programs. The problem is that, once you release them out into the wild, people just don't use them.

On that score, too, the results of the study were encouraging. The average subject in the control group used the expressive-writing tool 10 times over the three weeks of the study, with each session lasting about three minutes. The average subject using the new tool logged in 21 times, with each session lasting about nine minutes.

Cognitive reappraisal involves, first, identifying maladaptive thought patterns and, second, trying to recast the events that precipitated them in a different light.

A user of the new tool, which Morris calls Panoply, logs on and, in separate fields, records both a triggering event and his or her response to it. This much of the application was duplicated exactly for the expressive-writing tool used by the control group in the study.

With Panoply, however, members of the network then vote on the type of thought pattern represented by the poster's reaction to the triggering event and suggest ways of reinterpreting it. As users demonstrate more and more familiarity with techniques of cognitive reappraisal, they graduate from describing their own experiences, to offering diagnoses of other people's thought patterns, to suggesting reinterpretations.

To simulate a large network of users and ensure that Panoply users would receive replies even if they were posting in the middle of the night, Morris hired online workers through Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing application to supplement the comments made by study subjects. Each Mechanical Turk worker received a brief training in cognitive reappraisal, and about 1,000 contributed to the study.

The study appears in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.