Web-based interventions for depression get a new vote of confidence from researchers at MIT’s Media Lab and Northwestern University.

Previously, web interventions have been used to effectively improve student depression, anxiety, and stress when compared to those receiving traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. One study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry even found it helped reduce the stigma associated with depression — yet overall, reviews of web interventions are mixed.

Patient participation is truthfully not as high as experts would hope. Present researchers cited a 56 percent rate of intervention completion. They added similar intervention sites like Whisper, a confessional app, attracted over a billion views each month in 2014. And more than five million texts are sent to DoSomething.org’s Crisis Text Line, where they employ crisis counselors to help teens suffering from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other troubling issues.

Given the success of an app like Whisper, researchers developed Panoply, a peer-to-peer platform focused on cognitive reappraisal (an emotion regulation strategy) and providing 24/7 support to its users. Users can post content, respond to other users, and receive notifications when new interactions take place. These interactions, researchers wrote, are what get users to continually engage with the app.

To see how helpful this platform could be, researchers recruited and randomly assigned 166 people to Panoply or another web-based intervention focusing on online expressive writing. For a minimum of 25 minutes per week for three weeks, participants posted descriptions of stressful thoughts and situations. Unlike those simply writing, Panoply users received responses to their posts within minutes. Both groups also took a questionnaire at the start and finish of the study to self-measure their depression symptoms, reappraisal, and perseverative thinking.

While participants using Panoply showed significant improvement among all three measures, participants in the expressive writing group only improved upon depression symptoms and perseverative thinking. Instead of relying on what researchers refer to as “static, didactic content to teach therapeutic techniques,” Panoply is a more dynamic, social, and interactive platform — which appears to make a difference.

“Panoply engaged its users and was especially helpful for depressed individuals and for those who might ordinarily underutilize reappraisal techniques,” researchers concluded. “Further investigation is needed to examine the long-term effects of such a platform and whether the benefits generalize to a more diverse population of users.”

Source: Morris RR, Schueller SM, Picard RW. Efficacy of a Web-Based, Crowdsourced Peer-To-Peer Cognitive Reappraisal Platform for Depression: Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2015.