Sci and Tech Editor, Kara Watson, takes a look at two instances of mental health treatments, both of which have had great positive effects

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Depression and anxiety are the most common mental disorders in the world. 1 in 10 people will be affected by depression at some point during their lives. New research has found that therapeutic interventions (including things like counselling and drug therapy) can change patient’s personalities. It was found that people tended to be less neurotic and slightly more extraverted after their treatment. This study, led by Professor Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, has challenged the belief that certain personality traits are fixed from birth or childhood.

Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 7.8% of people meeting the criteria

Changing your personality

Neuroticism and extraversion are deemed to be two of five key personality traits in people, the others being openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. If you are more neurotic, you are more likely to view situations as threatening, as well as generally being more anxious or depressed. It was believed that these kinds of traits stay with us our entire lives, with some research backing up that idea, but this new study counters this belief.

'We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganises itself … but this reveals that personality does develop and can be developed' - Prof. Roberts

In a review of 207 studies on therapeutic interventions, it was found that after three months of treatment, patients reported themselves to be more emotionally stable by about half as much as they would over the course of their lives. In other words, the change in neuroticism that they would normally experience gradually over their adult life instead occurred in three months, which shows that these treatments make a huge difference.

Extraversion also showed as significant increase, although this was smaller, and for the 50 studies which followed up the patients after the treatment found that they still experienced these positive effects in the long-term. Those with anxiety disorders changed the most, whereas patients recovering from substance abuse changed the least. The review also found that the type of therapy used didn’t make a difference to the personality change. Only psychotherapy was associated with slightly greater changes in neuroticism than just drug therapy alone.

“We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganises itself … but this reveals that personality does develop and can be developed” said Prof. Roberts.

In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK

New forms of treatment – IntelliCare

In this digital age, therapy for mental health disorders are moving online and to apps on our smartphones. A new study has found that this could be a positive movement, as the collection of 13 mini-apps that have been developed by researchers at Northwestern University have shown to significantly reduce depression and anxiety in participants that used the apps up to four times a day for eight weeks.

There are over 165,000 health apps available for smartphones, but most of these are designed by developers, not scientists or therapists. 80% of these apps have never been proved effective. However, the IntelliCare apps have been designed by experts, and are showing promising results.

1 in 10 people have been waiting for treatment from the NHS for over a year, and over half have been waiting over 3 months

96 people participated in the study that was looking at the effect these apps have on depression and anxiety. The apps are aimed to be integrated into everyday life, and each app contains different exercises to help with things like reducing self-criticism, highlighting your personal strengths, finding meaning in your life and helping to get a better night’s sleep. The IntelliCare algorithm recommends the user new apps each week to keep the experience novel and to avoid boredom, which is the problem with a lot of mental health apps. The participants also received coaching during the 8 weeks, which included an initial phone call and then texts every week.

The study found that depression and anxiety were reduced by 50% in the patients who regularly used the apps

“We designed these apps so they fit easily into people’s lives and could be used as simply as apps to find a restaurant” said lead author, Professor David Mohr.

The study found that depression and anxiety were reduced by 50% in the patients who regularly used the apps. This success is on the same level as traditional treatments, like psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication. At the end of the study, 35 of the participants didn’t even meet the criteria for depression or anxiety.

“Using digital tools for mental health is emerging as an important part of our future” said Prof. Mohr.

The research is not without its faults; there was no control group included so it is hard to be sure if the differences made are really down to the apps and not some other external factor. Also, most of the patients were already being treated with other therapies, so it might be the apps just enhance this treatment. The coaching as well could be integral to the study’s success, which is not practical in a real-life situation.

However, the researchers have acknowledged these issues and so have launched a larger study of 300 participants that includes control groups for other factors. Overall, IntelliCare looks very promising and these kinds of well researched apps could be very important in the battle against mental health disorders as they make treatment more accessible to people who might not be receiving any care.