BACKGROUND: Developing effective, unguided Internet interventions for mental health represents a challenge. Without structured human guidance, engagement with these interventions is often limited and the effectiveness reduced. If their effectiveness can be increased, they have great potential for broad, low-cost dissemination. Improving unguided Internet interventions for mental health requires a renewed focus on the proposed underlying mechanisms of symptom improvement and the involvement of target users from the outset.
OBJECTIVE: The aim of our study was to develop an unguided e-mental health intervention for distress in primary care patients, drawing on meta-theory of psychotherapeutic change and utilizing the person-based approach (PBA) to guide iterative qualitative piloting with patients.
METHODS: Common factors meta-theory informed the selection and structure of therapeutic content, enabling flexibility whilst retaining the proposed necessary ingredients for effectiveness. A logic model was designed outlining intervention components and proposed mechanisms underlying improvement. The PBA provided a framework for systematically incorporating target-user perspective into the intervention development. Primary care patients (N=20) who had consulted with emotional distress in the last 12 months took part in exploratory qualitative interviews, and a subsample (n=13) undertook think-aloud interviews with a prototype of the intervention.
RESULTS: A flexible intervention was developed, to be used as and when patients need, diverting from a more traditional, linear approach. Based on the in-depth qualitative findings, disorder terms such as "depression" were avoided, and discussions of psychological symptoms were placed in the context of stressful life events. Think-aloud interviews showed that patients were positive about the design and structure of the intervention. On the basis of patient feedback, modifications were made to increase immediate access to all therapeutic techniques.
CONCLUSIONS: Detailing theoretical assumptions underlying Internet interventions for mental health, and integrating this approach with systematic in-depth qualitative research with target patients is important. These strategies may provide novel ways for addressing the challenges of unguided delivery. The resulting intervention, Healthy Paths, will be evaluated in primary care-based randomized controlled trials, and deployed as a massive open online intervention (MOOI).