Major depression affects between 6 and 10 percent of the U.S. population, making it one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses. Despite its ubiquity, however, depression carries with it a social stigma that often prevents people from seeking professional help. Combined with the fact that depression itself is an inherently isolating illness, people with depression often have nothing to turn to but their own negative thoughts, leading to a potentially dangerous feedback loop.
Robert Morris seeks to change that. Morris, a recent doctoral graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), hopes to provide depressed individuals with an anonymous therapeutic outlet called Panoply. Panoply is a social network that encourages people with depression to reassess and reshape their negative thought patterns through the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. Morris was inspired by Stack Overflow, a computer programming community in which programmers share their code with other programmers to figure out why it’s not working.
“Just like there are all these people helping me identify bugs in my code,” Morris remembered thinking, “perhaps I could create a similarly engaging and social system to help me identify bugs in my thinking.”
Identifying cognitive distortions
Panoply users can share an event with the community that made them feel uncomfortable or depressed. Other users can comfort the individual, reframe the information in a positive light, or identify what exactly makes the thought pattern maladaptive by identifying cognitive distortions. Community members vote on the cognitive distortion in every submission.
Examples of cognitive distortions include:
People who contribute to the Panoply community gradually learn how to recognize and correct maladaptive thought patterns by helping others. The theory is that by identifying the flaws in someone else’s thinking, it becomes easier to identify – and correct – one’s own negative thought patterns.
Effects of Panoply tested
It seems to work. Morris tested the effects of Panoply in his doctoral thesis by recruiting 166 subjects with symptoms of depression. One group of subjects participated in Panoply, whereas the other performed expressive-writing, a form of therapy that encourages patients to write down their deepest thoughts. To simulate the feel of a large, online community, Morris hired members of Mechanical Turk to respond and engage in the Panoply community.
After three weeks, Panoply participants had significantly reduced symptoms of depression as well as increased reappraisal skills for their negative thought patterns when compared with the expressive-writing participants. The participants who used Panoply also appeared to enjoy it more – expressive-writing participants used their therapy 10 times for three minutes a session, whereas Panoply participants used their therapy 21 times for nine minutes a session. This is especially encouraging, since Panoply is not the first remote program designed to treat depression – if it’s both therapeutic and fun, people will be more likely to use it for a sustained period of time and continue to reap its benefits.
Panoply has yet to be released to the public, but Morris hopes to make it into a polished app in the future. The tricky part, he suspects, will be packaging the app so that it will be appealing and not just a collection of depressing anecdotes. If he succeeds, people with depression will have a safe, anonymous space to reassess and treat their symptoms.
Sovereign Health Group offers numerous treatment options, ranging from yoga to medication management, for depression and other mental health conditions. For further questions, please contact 866-554-5504.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer