Making treatment for depression more accessible – online

Zindel Segal’s research on mindfulness is backed by a $2M grant from the National Institutes of Health

Image of Zindel Segal and study subject

Mindfulness is an increasingly high-profile technique helping people cope with psychological issues ranging from depression to anxiety.  Similar to meditation, it involves focusing your attention on something in the moment—such as the sounds in a room or even negative emotions—without judgment.  Over time, mindfulness exercises are proven to bring lasting change to how the brain operates.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is particularly effective in keeping people from suffering a relapse after recovering from depression, with results on a par with anti-depressant medication, says Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at UTSC and a pioneering expert in the field. “But the therapy can be hard to access for people who aren’t living in a metropolitan centre like Toronto or Vancouver or New York,” he notes.

Prolonged treatment by a professional can also be expensive. To help address access issues, Segal is leading a major study investigating an online version of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that he helped design. Funded through a US$2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S., the three-and-a-half-year study will include 460 patients already undergoing treatment for depression at health centres throughout Colorado run by Kaiser Permanente, a major U.S. health management organization (HMO). Working with Segal will be psychologists Arne Beck of Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Research in Colorado and Sona Dimidjian of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“The key question is this: once we introduce this online therapy, can we further reduce people’s depressive symptoms?” says Segal.

Patients not in the control group will use the online program for eight weeks—progressing through weekly two-hour modules with video instruction and interactive screens—and will be monitored for a year. The study will evaluate their progress as well as the feasibility of HMOs using the web-based program to aid treatment.

“It’s low cost,” says Segal. “People can access it from the convenience of their homes without having to travel and without having to find a therapist.”

The NIH grant enabling this cutting-edge research is noteworthy. The U.S. Health Department agency does not usually fund studies outside the country. Its support for this project attests to Segal’s acknowledge expertise and UTSC’s growing reputation for research excellence. Segal, who also received US$450,000 for a pilot project in this area, will serve as principal investigator and conduct the data analysis at UTSC.