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Online Therapy: Are We There Yet?

The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health first started getting questions from employers in 2009 and 2010 about new technologies that promised the safe and effective provision of mental health treatment online through apps and interactive web portals. We even tried to write an issue brief on the topic, but had to shelve it when the literature review revealed that there just wasn’t enough evidence to support drawing any conclusions to help employers decide if they should start providing employees with services through these new modalities.

Fast forward to today: while research is starting to emerge, it hasn’t kept pace with the proliferation of new products and technologies. The research that is available seems to suggest that online technologies are worth exploring and considering, in particular to address the unmet need of traditional face to face treatment. A review of the results of 14 studies published between 2005 and 2015 concluded that online therapy programs can help some people with mild to moderate depression. Tech approaches are getting more sophisticated, with, for example, the combination of apps with text and phone support.

So what’s an employer to do today, while we wait for the research to catch up?

Evaluate apps carefully. Check out APA’s App Evaluation Model to help you make informed decisions about specific apps. The tool was developed for members but is accessible to anyone here.

Treat new technologies as a tool and not a panacea. Ranna Parekh, MD, APA’s Director of Diversity and Health Equity, noted that while it might help close the gap in the shortage of mental health providers, she cautioned that online therapy is not for those with severe depression. It's only for "someone with mild to moderate depression, but not for those at risk for suicide."

Encourage research. You can help by asking vendors questions about how they measure the effectiveness of their products. You might even be in a position to help grow the evidence base by participating in research studies.

We’d love to hear from you – how are you responding to this quickly growing field?

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