An online peer-to-peer networking tool developed jointly by MIT
and Northwestern University has been found to be effective in
treating those who suffer with anxiety and depression. The tool,
named Panoply, allows people to build online support communities
and practice therapeutic techniques among one another.
Panoply has been specifically designed to help tackle
“maladaptive thought patterns”, which people with depression often
struggle with. These patterns tend to lead to behaviour such as
catastrophising, over-generalising, mind reading (thinking you have
some kind of insight into feelings of others) and “all-or-nothing”
The effectiveness of Panoply has been compared against another
self-guided, therapeutic technique known as expressive writing,
which is commonly used by those who struggle with anxiety and
depression. A study involving 166 participants and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research
has shown that peer-to-peer networking yielded better outcomes
across the board.
Researchers identified two particular areas in which the outcome
was especially positive. Firstly, those involved in the study were
taught a new technique called cognitive reappraisal, which they
found extremely helpful. Secondly, those with more severe symptoms
experienced significant mood improvements.
Cognitive reappraisal encourages users to identify their own
maladaptive thought patterns and try to recast the events that led
them to that conclusion in a different light. Through Panoply,
members of the network suggested ways of reinterpreting events that
had triggered maladaptive thinking to occur. Researchers found that
as users demonstrated greater familiarity with this technique, they
moved from being able to understand their own behaviour to helping
others diagnose their thought patterns.
“We really wanted to see that people are utilising this skill
over and over again, not only in response to their own stressors
but also as teachers to other people,” says Rob Morris, who led the study.
Morris was primarily concerned with whether people would
actually use the peer-to-peer platform regularly, not whether it
would prove clinically effective. The problem with many therapeutic
solutions that don’t require interference or oversight by a
therapist, he says, is that “once you release them out into the
wild, people just don’t use them”.
This was something he took into account while building his
network, and adjusted for accordingly. “The way we designed our
platform was to really mimic some of the interaction paradigms that
underlie very engaging social programs.”
Results showed that the control group used the expressive
writing tool on average ten times over the course of three weeks,
with sessions lasting approximately three minutes. Those who used
Morris’ tool, however, logged in 21 one times over the same period
for an average of nine minutes each time.
“Panoply engaged its users and was especially helpful for
depressed individuals and for those who might ordinarily
underutilise reappraisal techniques. Further investigation is
needed to examine the long-term effects of such a platform and
whether the benefits generalise to a more diverse population of
users,” the study concludes.
Morris initiated the creation of Panoply as part of his media
arts and sciences degree at MIT, and following his graduation he is
now working on commercialising the technology through Koko, a
company he has cofounded in New York.