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

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  • Mathias Harrer
  • Sophia Helen Adam
  • Rebecca Jessica Fleischmann
  • Harald Baumeister
  • Randy Auerbach
  • Ronny Bruffaerts
  • Pim Cuijpers
  • Ronald C. Kessler
  • Matthias Berking
  • Dirk Lehr
  • David Daniel Ebert

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).

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere136
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number4
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 04.2018

    Research areas

  • randomized controlled trial, stress, psychological, depression, telemedicine, students, help-seeking behavior
  • Psychology