If we build it, will they come? Issues of engagement with digital health interventions for trauma recovery

Carolyn M. Yeager, Charles C. Benight


Exposure to traumatic events is extremely common with nearly 75% reported to have experienced one or more traumatic events worldwide. A significant number of those exposed will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Globally, trauma-related mental health disorders are the leading cause of global disability burden, and many of these disorders are caused, or worsened, by exposure to wars, natural and human-caused disasters, and other traumatic events. Significant barriers to treatment exist including logistical, geographical, financial, stigma, and other attitudinal challenges. One opportune approach to overcoming these barriers is the provision of mental health interventions via technology that can be readily standardized for wide dissemination of evidence-based care. However, engagement with technology-based interventions is a concern and limited participation and high attrition rates are common. This may be especially true for trauma survivors who often experience symptoms of avoidance and hyperarousal. Engagement is regarded as an essential component of intervention efficacy and has been demonstrated to be associated with more positive clinical outcomes, yet theoretically based research in this area is sparse. This review focuses on the complex issue of engagement with digital health interventions (DHIs). Specifically, we review the conceptualization and measurement of engagement, predictors of engagement, and importantly, the relationship of engagement with intervention effectiveness. Finally, a theoretically based model of engagement is proposed that considers the unique challenges of trauma recovery. This review is not intended to provide a systematic or exhaustive set of recommendations, rather it is intended to highlight the challenges of engagement research including its definition, measurement, and modeling. Future engagement research that includes valid and reliable measures of engagement will enable consistent exploration of engagement predictors that can then inform methods for increasing engagement and, ultimately, intervention effectiveness.