Effectiveness of an Internet- and App-Based Intervention for College Students With Elevated Stress: Randomized Controlled Trial

J Med Internet Res. 2018 Apr 23;20(4):e136. doi: 10.2196/jmir.9293.


Background: Mental health problems are highly prevalent among college students. Most students with poor mental health, however, do not receive professional help. Internet-based self-help formats may increase the utilization of treatment.

Objective: The aim of this randomized controlled trial was to evaluate the efficacy of an internet-based, app-supported stress management intervention for college students.

Methods: College students (n=150) with elevated levels of stress (Perceived Stress Scale 4-item version, PSS-4 ≥8) were randomly assigned to either an internet- and mobile-based stress intervention group with feedback on demand or a waitlist control group. Self-report data were assessed at baseline, posttreatment (7 weeks), and 3-month follow-up. The primary outcome was perceived stress posttreatment (PSS-4). Secondary outcomes included mental health outcomes, modifiable risk and protective factors, and college-related outcomes. Subgroup analyses were conducted in students with clinically relevant symptoms of depression (Center for Epidemiological Studies' Depression Scale >17).

Results: A total of 106 participants (76.8%) indicated that they were first-time help-seekers, and 77.3% (intervention group: 58/75; waitlist control group: 58/75) showed clinically relevant depressive symptoms at baseline. Findings indicated significant effects of the intervention compared with the waitlist control group for stress (d=0.69; 95% CI 0.36-1.02), anxiety (d=0.76; 95% CI 0.43-1.09), depression (d=0.63; 95% CI 0.30-0.96), college-related productivity (d=0.33; 95% CI 0.01-0.65), academic work impairment (d=0.34; 95% CI 0.01-0.66), and other outcomes after 7 weeks (posttreatment). Response rates for stress symptoms were significantly higher for the intervention group (69%, 52/75) compared with the waitlist control group (35%, 26/75, P<.001; number needed to treat=2.89, 95% CI 2.01-5.08) at posttest (7 weeks). Effects were sustained at 3-month follow-up, and similar findings emerged in students with symptoms of depression.

Conclusions: Internet- and mobile-based interventions could be an effective and cost-effective approach to reduce consequences of college-related stress and might potentially attract students with clinically relevant depression who would not otherwise seek help.

Trial registration: German Clinical Trial Register DRKS00010212; http://www.drks.de/drks_web/navigate.do? navigationId=trial.HTML&TRIAL_ID=DRKS00010212 (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/6w55Ewhjd).

Keywords: depression; help-seeking behavior; randomized controlled trial; stress, psychological; students; telemedicine.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet*
  • Male
  • Mental Health / trends*
  • Mobile Applications*
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Students

Associated data

  • DRKS/DRKS00010212