FDA approves depression-treating phone app

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published April 19, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The prescription Rejoyn app has been approved for the treatment of major depressive disorder in adults

  • Clinical trial participants who used Rejoyn alongside an antidepressant saw an improvement in their depression symptoms

  • Rejoyn is one of only a few apps approved by the FDA for mental health treatment

Telehealth apps such as Talkspace and Better Help have become popular options for mental health treatment in the past several years. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved another way for Americans to receive depression treatment on their phones. The app Rejoyn has been approved for the prescription treatment of major depression in adults. The app is meant to be an add-on treatment for people who are already taking an anti-depressant medication.[]

Rejoyn combines therapeutic exercises, emotional regulation training, and supportive texts. It also uses a technology called the Emotional Faces Memory Task (EFMT). During an EFMT task, users are asked to identify the emotions displayed on a series of faces and recall when they saw that same emotion displayed earlier in the series. The exercise aims to balance activity in different brain regions and prevent a focus on reactive negative thoughts.[]  

A Rejoyn treatment program is six weeks long, with a total time commitment of under two hours each week. Unlike telehealth treatment programs, Rejoyn is only available for download with a prescription. A new six-week course of treatment will require a new prescription.[] 

In clinical trials, the Rejoyn app provided benefits for people with major depressive disorder. In a 13-week controlled trial of 400 adults between the ages of 22 and 64, participants who used Rejoyn as a treatment alongside an antidepressant medication had an improvement in their depression symptoms. Participants who’d used Rejoyn were still showing improvements a month after completing the treatment. No side effects were observed.[]

An estimated cost for the Renjoyn app has not been made available. However, its creators stated that it is meant to be affordable, accessible, and convenient for patients. 

The discussion surrounding app-based treatments

App-based treatment for depression is still a relatively new idea, and additional studies into its benefits are still needed. For instance, although trial participants who used Rejoyn saw improvements in their depression symptoms, the difference between these participants and the control group was not large. Additionally, there are concerns about the effect of additional screen time and phone use on people with depression. The Rejoyn app only requires a few hours each week, so the potential benefits likely outweigh the screen time risk, but further study is required.[]

However, despite some reservations, the availability of telehealth, wearable health devices, digital therapies, and other treatments with the ease of opening a phone app is increasing. Paul MacLellan, president of Medical Advantage, Part of TDC Group, expects that trend to continue over the next several years as newer technology becomes part of the healthcare landscape. 

“Digital medicine represents a fundamental shift for healthcare. In the same way that digital payment platforms and online banking apps transformed financial services,” MacLellan says. “The revolution of telehealth and digital healthcare will drive this change in medicine. In 10 years, medical practices will serve as a control center—monitoring, coordinating, and delivering care through technology. Consumers will view their phones as the center of their care.”

Additional apps for mental health

Prescription cognitive-behavioral therapy through an app has been an option since the FDA approved the reSET app in 2017. The reSET app is for the treatment of substance use disorder. The app is meant to be used alongside outpatient therapy and medical supervision. In 2018, the FDA approved the expanded REST-o app for the treatment of opioid use disorder.[]

In 2020, the FDA approved EndeavorRx as a treatment for pediatric ADHD. EndeavorRx is a video game-like treatment that helps improve attention and focus. Treatment cycles last 3 months, and a prescription is required to download the EndeavorRx app.[] 

Patients with PTSD who experience nightmares have an app treatment option called NightWare. The app was approved by the FDA in 2020. It is linked to a digital watch that can sense when the wearer has a disturbing dream. The watch then vibrates to wake up the dreamer.[] 

Somryst is a CBT-based app that can help treat insomnia. It is available for adults over the age of 22. Somryst requires a prescription and a nine-week treatment course.[] 

New digital technology and dementia 

Earlier this year, the FDA approved an AI software called BrainSee. This program is for the early detection of degeneration leading to dementia. It can read data from MRIs and cognitive tests to determine how likely it is that a person with mild cognitive impairment will develop Alzheimer’s dementia within five years. In a clinical study, BrainSee was found to be 91% accurate in its predictions of dementia.[]

The program can help patients start treatment earlier, potentially delaying the onset of symptoms. It can also avoid more expensive and invasive tests later on. Additionally, BrainSee is available at physicians’ offices and is accessible to general practitioners and other primary care providers. 

On the horizon

A digital therapy app for the treatment of schizophrenia currently has Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA and is undergoing clinical trials. The app would be intended for the treatment of adults with moderate-to-severe schizophrenia and would be used alongside an antipsychotic medication. Clinical trials are expected to conclude in July 2025.[]

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