Researchers funded to investigate online behavioural interventions for major depressive disorder

A York University research team led by Paul Ritvo, a professor in the school of Kinesiology and Health Science, and colleagues including Joel Katz, a professor in the department of Psychology, was awarded a four-year, $670,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to investigate online behavioural interventions for major depressive disorder. Ritvo and his team have been working in close collaboration with Dr. Jeff Daskalakis, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, on several initiatives related to mental health.

In a prior study on depressive disorder, 60 per cent of the subjects intervened with were in remission (no longer depressed) after six months of intervention. This new funding will enable the researchers to follow up and expand upon the first study, supporting the assessment of and intervention with 200 subjects.

Paul Ritvo

Paul Ritvo

Approximately 70 per cent of all mental health disorders, including major depressive disorder, appear before the age of 25, with those aged 15 to 25 being significantly more likely to experience mental health disorders, substance dependencies and risks for suicide.

In their 2019 study “An Online Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Intervention for Youth Diagnosed With Major Depressive Disorders,” published in JMIR Research Protocols, Ritvo and his team explored how online mindfulness-oriented cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) combined with psychiatric care compared to standard psychiatric alone in youth (aged 18 to 30) diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

In the 2019 mindfulness-CBT study, researchers worked with subjects via their smartphones on a near-daily basis, sending text messages, taking phone calls and recording subjects’ steps through a health tracking app to support a vigorous walking program. The rate of contact was determined by the subjects themselves.

“You can make a lot of difference by sending the right text message at the right time,” Ritvo explained, who emphasized the immediacy as key benefit of this form of treatment. “This isn’t week-by-week or month-by-month,” he continued. “This is, ‘how is your day today, and if you’re not doing so well this morning, how can we make it better by the afternoon.’”

Ritvo is enthused by the broader applications for successful online behavioural interventions for major depressive disorder. Beyond providing cost-effective, “nearly-real-time” therapy at a time when many struggle to access mental health resources, these methods can remove the geographic barriers for populations typically underserved, such as remote, rural and Indigenous communities.

The Ritvo Lab at York University studies how diseases such as cancer, HIV-AIDS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental illness can be prevented with health behaviour change, and devises the strategies, programs and new methodologies required to achieve such changes. The lab is working to develop a health coaching specialty at York University, integrating smartphone technology into health promotion.

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