The COVID-19 pandemic has seen greater attention paid to digital intervention needed to address anxiety and depression in society, said experts at an online conference held by NYU Shanghai on March 31.

The conference on digital mental health intervention brought together researchers and public health practitioners from eight countries from Asia, Europe and the Oceania region.

According to Pim Cuijpers, professor of clinical psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, more than 50 percent of the world’s population suffers from anxiety or depression, with Asia having the highest number of affected people.

“The pandemic has brought greater attention to the impact of anxiety and depression on society, and public interest in dealing with these conditions has increased,” he says.

“Many people don’t develop a major depressive disorder during the period, but they feel down, isolated and lonely, and so it makes it clearer that mental health is a very important aspect of everyone’s life.”

However, there are still existing problems with treatment for depression, as some are not effective and many people do not seek treatment or relapse after treatment.

“If we have digital intervention, the results are comparable to face-to-face intervention. There’s good scientific evidence supporting that statement, at least when there is some human support,” Cuijpers explains.

Digital intervention can be organized without a specific location and can be used in hospitals for general medical care, or in schools and the workplace, he adds.

Brian Hall, professor of global public health at NYU Shanghai, echoes this insight, saying the most important characteristic of evidence-based digital mental health intervention is that it is “scalable”.

“It can be offered to larger populations quickly, without the need for substantial changes to the treatment and without having to train many specialized caregivers. Since digital treatment programs rely less heavily on human resources, they can be cost-effective, sustainable alternatives to in-person care,” Hall says.

He notes that digital intervention is part of an optimal mix of services that can help meet the needs of large populations of people with moderate mental health concerns.

But a smaller proportion of the population with more serious mental health concerns, he adds, will need a combination of treatment options that may include digital intervention. This will likely include face-to-face treatment and perhaps medication-assisted management.

In terms of its possible application, Marcus Schweizer, AI and automation manager at Deloitte Australia, stresses there are always unforeseen ethical challenges when applying new techniques or new technology to the mental health space.

One of these challenges would be efficacy, as many services are untested. Another is data privacy and ensuring that data is not misused by governments or even sold to third parties, says Schweizer, who calls for the establishment of standards for digital intervention.

Cuijpers points out that more research in this area is needed to identify the efficacy of individual modules and in specific population groups.

“Meta-analysis of larger trials can help us understand which aspects of therapies are best to digitize, and which populations respond best to which kinds of digital programs,” Cuijpers says.