A combined research effort between MIT and Northwestern University has led to the development of a new socially engaging tool designed to help people cope with depression. Focusing on a technique known as cognitive reappraisal, the application allows members to both receive help from others, and offer it themselves.
People suffering from depression frequently find themselves slipping into what are known as "maladaptive thought patterns," wherein they view events in their lives in a firmly negative context. For example, if a sufferer loses their job, they might think they won't find another, or if someone is upset, they might assume it is their fault. Psychologists put these negative thought patterns into categories, such as mind-reading, fortune-telling or all-or-nothing thinking, before identifying more positive appraisals of the situation.
The key premise of the new tool, which the team calls Panoply, is to mimic that analysis on a social level. Users fill out separate fields detailing a triggering event and the resultant maladaptive thought, with other users logging on and suggesting ways that the event can be reframed in a positive light. As users become more familiar with the program, they'll gain the ability to offer their own reframing suggestions.
"We really wanted to see that people are utilizing this skill over and over again, not only in response to their own stressors, but also as teachers to other people," said MIT PhD student Rob Morris. "We can surmise that it's a little easier to practice some of the psychotherapeutic skills for other people before turning them towards themselves."
The team believes that this socially-driven method makes people more likely to use the tool regularly, and ensures that it's clinically beneficial. The study, which tested the new tool against the established, expressive writing technique, included 166 subjects, all of whom exhibited symptoms of depression. Over a three-week period, users of the new technique logged on an average of 21 times, using the tool for around nine minutes each session. In comparison, those utilizing the more traditional technique (via a more limited expressive writing tool) logged on to use it just 10 times, and for only three minutes each time.
For the purposes of the study, around 1,000 online workers were hired through Amazon's Mechanical Turk program, each receiving brief training in cognitive reappraisal. This ensured that the subjects of the study would always have someone to respond to a post, even if they were using the tool in the middle of the night. Once the application is widely available – something that Morris is working on now, with the help of New York-based company Koko – it's hoped that this won't be necessary, with its social nature allowing it to sustain itself without the need for online workers.
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