The emergence of digital mental health in low-income and middle-income countries: A review of recent advances and implications for the treatment and prevention of mental disorders

J Psychiatr Res. 2021 Jan:133:223-246. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.12.016. Epub 2020 Dec 13.


In low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs), emerging digital mental health interventions should be accompanied by regular and comprehensive assessment of available scientific evidence. This review aims to support efforts to monitor progress in digital mental health research, ensuring new evidence can guide researchers, clinicians, policymakers and program managers positioned to adopt and implement these digitally-enabled treatments. In accordance with PRISMA guidelines, an electronic database search from 2016 to 2020 yielded 37 digital intervention studies for detection, diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and/or management of a broad range of mental disorders in 13 LMICs. This date range was selected to update previous reviews. Most studies involved online interventions and many reported feasibility and acceptability, reflected by participant satisfaction or program adherence. About half the studies (N = 23) reported clinical benefits based on changes in mental health. For depression and mood disorders, some digital interventions showed improvements in depressive symptoms, quality of life, treatment adherence, and recovery. However, sample sizes were small and studies focused primarily on adults. Further limiting generalizability was the lack of consistency in clinical assessment and measurement tools between studies. No studies reported worsening symptoms, negative acceptability or dissatisfaction with digital interventions, suggesting possible publication bias. While digital interventions show promise, it remains difficult to conclude that digital interventions are effective from these studies, as it is prudent to exercise caution before drawing conclusions about clinical effectiveness. This review reflects continued growth in digital mental health research in LMICs and further highlights the need for rigorous evaluation of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.

Keywords: Digital psychiatry; Digital technology; Global health; Low- and middle-income country; Mental health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Developing Countries*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders* / therapy
  • Mental Health
  • Poverty
  • Quality of Life