Background: Mental disorders impact both individuals and health systems. Symptoms and syndromes often remain undetected and untreated, resulting in chronification. Besides limited health care resources, within-person barriers such as the lack of trust in professionals, the fear of stigmatization, or the desire to cope with problems without professional help contribute to the treatment gap. Self-guided mental health apps may support treatment seeking by reducing within-person barriers and facilitating mental health literacy. Digital mental health interventions may also improve mental health related self-management skills and contribute to symptom reduction and the improvement of quality of life.
Objective: This study aims to investigate the effects of a self-guided transdiagnostic app for mental health on help seeking, reduced stigma, mental health literacy, self-management skills, mental health symptoms, and quality of life using a randomized controlled design.
Methods: Overall, 1045 participants (recruited via open, blinded, and web-based recruitment) with mild to moderate depression or anxiety-, sleep-, eating-, or somatization-related psychopathology were randomized to receive either access to a self-guided transdiagnostic mental health app (MindDoc) in addition to care as usual or care as usual only. The core features of the app were regular self-monitoring, automated feedback, and psychological courses and exercises. The coprimary outcomes were mental health literacy, mental health–related patient empowerment and self-management skills (MHPSS), attitudes toward help seeking, and actual mental health service use. The secondary outcomes were psychopathological symptom burden and quality of life. Data were collected at baseline and 8 weeks and 6 months after randomization. Treatment effects were investigated using analyses of covariance, including baseline variables as predictors and applying multiple imputation.
Results: We found small but robust between-group effects for MHPSS (Cohen d=0.29), symptoms burden (Cohen d=0.28), and quality of life (Cohen d=0.19) 8 weeks after randomization. The effects on MHPSS were maintained at follow-up. Follow-up assessments also showed robust effects on mental health literacy and preliminary evidence for the improvement of help seeking. Predictors of attrition were lower age and higher personality dysfunction. Among the non-attritors, predictors for deterioration were less outpatient treatment and higher initial symptom severity.
Conclusions: A self-guided transdiagnostic mental health app can contribute to lasting improvements in patient empowerment. Symptoms of common mental disorders and quality of life improved faster in the intervention group than in the control group. Therefore, such interventions may support individuals with symptoms of 1 or more internalizing disorders, develop health-centered coping skills, prevent chronification, and accelerate symptom improvement. Although the effects for individual users are small and predictors of attrition and deterioration need to be investigated further, the potential public health impact of a self-guided intervention can be large, given its high scalability.
Trial Registration: German Clinical Trials Register DRKS00022531; https://drks.de/search/de/trial/DRKS00022531
JMIR Ment Health 2023;10:e45068