Conference Coverage

Private Facebook chats show promise as depression, cannabis use intervention



– A pair of small studies suggest that cyber-based interventions with private online meeting areas – like those available on Facebook – could help lift depression and encourage less marijuana use in young people with cannabis use disorder.

“Even individuals who are not looking to quit their use of cannabis have some degree of ambivalence about the extent of their use of it,” said study researcher Suzette Glasner, PhD, in an interview. “When given tools to explore the consequences of their use and change if they want to, they do find reasons and effective ways to change or reduce their use – even if they don’t quit completely.”

Dr. Suzette Glasner of the University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Suzette Glasner

Dr. Glasner, who conducted a study with her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, presented her findings at the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

Research shows that nearly one-third of cannabis users in 2012-2013 showed signs of cannabis use disorder (JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 Dec; 72[12]:1235-42).

For the first study, researchers recruited 26 participants who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder and cannabis use disorder (all had used marijuana on at least 40 of the previous 90 days). After a brief in-person intervention session, they received 9 therapy sessions via computer and brief weekly check-ins by clinicians over 10 weeks.

The average age of the participants was 29, and 54% were women. They reported that their average depression severity fell from 13 to 6 at 14-week follow-up, based on the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 scale. Cannabis use also declined.

For the separate Facebook study, an additional 18 participants received access to a private Facebook group that included daily posts reinforcing the program. The average age of this group was 27, and 56% were women.

The posts asked questions about topics such as “your fears about cutting back” and feelings that are “triggers” for cannabis use. One post directed users to details about mindfulness activities, and another asked users to describe on a scale of 1-10 how important it is for them to cut back.

Participants responded with praise for the private group, offering comments such as “the Facebook group is really helpful and offers a lot of support,” “it’s nice throughout the day to have uplifting Facebook notifications,” and “I like the tips, the positive feedback and the feeling that we’re in it together, not alone.”

“As for any addiction, social support is an important part of recovery,” Dr. Glasner said. “The Facebook approach enables those addicted to cannabis, for whom motivation for many things – including socializing – may be lacking, to utilize social support, without having to leave the comfort of their home or wherever they might isolate when they’re using cannabis heavily.”

She added that “this social support may be inspiring, motivating, and reassuring to them,” letting them know that they’re not alone in experiencing an addiction whose existence is sometimes doubted.

Dr. Glasner said she next plans a large randomized trial to evaluate the efficacy of the Facebook intervention and its mechanisms of action.

After her presentation at the meeting, Dr. Glasner was asked about the ongoing concerns regarding privacy on Facebook. “When I funded and started this study, it was nearly 2 years ago, and it wasn’t as large of a concern,” she said. “We may need to look to utilize a social media platform that may not be Facebook: ‘We have one to support you, but it’s not Facebook.’”

In a related presentation at the meeting, another researcher reported success using 80 interactive texts over 4 weeks to reach out to participants in an intervention programs targeting cannabis use disorder.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the study. Dr. Glasner is author of The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook: Changing Addictive Behaviors Using CBT, Mindfulness, and Motivational Interviewing Techniques (Oakland, Calif.: New Harbinger Publications, 2015). The authors reported no relevant disclosures.

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