22 July 2019
College students are increasingly reporting common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and they frequently encounter barriers to seeking traditional mental health treatments. Digital mental health interventions, such as those delivered via the Web and apps, offer the potential to improve access to mental health treatment.
This study aimed to review the literature on digital mental health interventions focused on depression, anxiety, and enhancement of psychological well-being among samples of college students to identify the effectiveness, usability, acceptability, uptake, and adoption of such programs.
We conducted a systematic review using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines (registration number CRD42018092800), and the search strategy was conducted by a medical research librarian in the following databases: MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE (Elsevier), PsycINFO (EbscoHost), the Cochrane Library (Wiley), and Web of Science (Thomson Reuters) from the date of inception to April 2019. Data were synthesized using a systematic narrative synthesis framework, and formal quality assessments were conducted to address the risk of bias.
A total of 89 studies met the inclusion criteria. The majority of interventions (71/89, 80%) were delivered via a website, and the most common intervention was internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (28, 31%). Many programs (33, 37%) featured human support in the form of coaching. The majority of programs were either effective (42, 47%) or partially effective (30, 34%) in producing beneficial changes in the main psychological outcome variables. Approximately half of the studies (45, 51%) did not present any usability or acceptability outcomes, and few studies (4, 4%) examined a broad implementation of digital mental health interventions on college campuses. Quality assessments revealed a moderate-to-severe risk of bias in many of the studies.
Results suggest that digital mental health interventions can be effective for improving depression, anxiety, and psychological well-being among college students, but more rigorous studies are needed to ascertain the effective elements of these interventions. Continued research on improving the user experience of, and thus user engagement with, these programs appears vital for the sustainable implementation of digital mental health interventions on college campuses.