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mHealth Can Help Teens, Young Adults Struggling With Depression

A new survey on young adults and depression finds that online platforms and social media are contributing to the crisis. But it also suggests that mHealth can be used to help this population find meaningful treatment.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Teens and young adults are using mHealth and telehealth to research healthcare and connect with peers online, according to a nationwide survey. It suggests that tomorrow’s consumers are comfortable with connected health services - and that the best connections are made with others facing the same health concerns.

The survey of some 1,300 teens and young adults, conducted in March and April by HopeLab and Well Being Trust, may be particularly useful in designing mobile health programs for the growing number of people dealing with mental health issues.

“We know definitively that teens and young adults readily seek support online to deal with mental health,” Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, Chief Strategy Officer for Well Being Trust, said in a press release accompanying the survey.” We must meet them where they are and figure out how to provide appropriate care, in whatever shape or form that may look like for them. Our communities, clinicians and policy makers must identify and support resources - both digital and in-person - that can be most effective in promoting good mental health and well-being.”

While focusing on how online and social media use play a factor in depression among young people, the survey also offers proof that this population – those between the ages of 14 and 22 – is already using mHealth resources and is comfortable with healthcare delivered through digital channels. That bodes well for the future of the mHealth and telehealth industry, which has only been hesitantly embraced by older generations.

For example, 87 percent of those surveyed have researched healthcare online, targeting fitness (63 percent), mental well-being (59 percent) and nutrition (52 percent). Three-quarters said they were getting information about a health issue that affects them, while 53 percent said they were doing so for someone they know. And a robust 94 percent said the information they found was “somewhat” or “very” helpful.

READ MORE: A Telepsychiatrist Talks About the Power of mHealth Technology

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they have used mHealth apps, with the most popular being fitness (45 percent) and nutrition (26 percent) apps. But only one-quarter said they are currently using an mHealth app, and one-third said they’ve never used an app.

According to researchers, this suggests young people are using apps for a very specific health goal, and then abandoning them when that goal is met. That may be troubling for mHealth programs looking for sustained patient engagement.

The survey next focuses on who young adults are reaching out to for mHealth. Only about 20 percent of those surveyed said they have connected with a health provider online – 10 percent via online messaging, 8 percent by text, 5 percent through an app and 4 percent through an audio-visual platform.

Almost 40 percent, meanwhile, say they have gone online to find others with similar health concerns – and 84 percent reported success finding someone to connect with, and 91 percent said the connection was either “somewhat” or “very” helpful.

This suggests that young adults are more comfortable connecting with their peers online than they are in connecting with their healthcare providers. And it could be used to shape connected care programs that treat this population.

READ MORE: mHealth Programs For Adolescents Need to Focus on Patient Engagement

That’s especially important considering that online use – especially social media tools – may also be contributing to an increase in young people with mental health concerns.

This survey suggests that the relationship between internet use and depression is far more complex than is often acknowledged,” HopeLab CEO Margaret Laws said in the press release. “The pressures of social media clearly present real challenges for many young people, but social media and other online resources offer real opportunities to engage and provide support for those who are struggling.”

Many survey respondents say social media helps them find “connection, support and inspiration during times of depression, stress or anxiety.” And 30 percent of those with moderate or severe symptoms of depression say social media is “very” important to them for feeling less alone, while 27 percent say it is “very” important for getting inspiration from others.

These channels might also be adding to the mental health crisis among young people. Those surveyed with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are more likely to say they feel “left out” when using social media, or that others are doing better than they are.

The research suggests that mHealth and telehealth programs tailored to young adults with mental health concerns take advantage of digital health channels that this population is already comfortable with and using, and that these programs place an emphasis on peer-to-peer collaboration and support.

“The findings make one thing abundantly clear: The digital health revolution has arrived for this generation of young people,” the survey concludes. “Technology and the Internet have transformed how teens and young adults search for information, share stories and experiences, and connect to one another about health. Large numbers of young people are turning to online sources for information on health issues, using health-related mobile apps, posting their health experiences online, and looking for others who have the same health concerns they do. Now we need to ask ourselves whether the rest of us are doing our part to help meet their needs.”

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