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The pros and cons of mental health apps

Vaseline 1 month ago

Accessing quality mental health care can be a challenge. Some people find it too expensive, especially if they don’t have insurance coverage. Others live in areas where mental health professionals and therapists are scarce. Consider mental health and therapy apps, which have been around for years but have recently grown in both number and popularity, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, thousands of mental health and wellness apps claim to help people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. While people seem receptive to using these apps to seek help, others point out that there is reason to be wary of their promises. Some apps offer digital support from licensed professionals, but many apps offer a completely human-free experience. While they may offer an alternative, it is unclear whether they can match the benefits of seeking help from a real professional.

Pro: Make mental health care more accessible

Mental health apps have the potential to help people who might not normally access mental health care recognize and manage symptoms of mental illness, Popular Science reports. Jason Moehringer, co-founder of PsyberGuide, a website that provides evidence-based reviews of so-called mHealth apps, believes they are a “huge benefit at a time when mental health care is virtually out of reach for about half of Americans living with mental illness,” according to Popular Science. The apps can “provide many things that traditional therapy often cannot” because they are “usually cheaper and do not require travel time to an office.”

The “great potential of smartphones is the ubiquity of the device,” Jukka-Pekka Onnela, co-director of the Master of Science in Health Data Science program at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told The Harvard Gazette. In terms of “health inequality, if we can leverage devices that people already have, we can potentially reduce that inequality,” Onnela added.

Against: Provide little supervision or regulation

There’s no regulatory body vetting the claims of mHealth apps, so people interested in them are left somewhat to their own devices “to navigate an explosion of options that range from expert-recommended to potentially harmful,” according to Popular Science. Some apps use user testimonials or company-funded studies to support their ambitious claims. “There are a lot of claims being made that may or may not accurately reflect what these products actually have to offer,” Moehringer told the outlet. “It’s the wild west.”

Most mental health apps lack peer-reviewed research to prove their efficacy, and it is unlikely that all of these apps will undergo a randomized clinical trial to test their effectiveness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH ). One reason is that technology is evolving too quickly for the slow testing process. “By the time an app has undergone rigorous scientific testing, the original technology may be outdated,” the NIMH said.

Pro: Open people’s minds to psychiatric care

Although mental health care has become more mainstream, as evidenced by the flood of mHealth apps available, mental health care is still stigmatized. Experimenting with mental health apps could help more people seek help. “It can provide such a great foot in the door,” Colleen Stiles-Shields, professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, told Popular Science. A mobile app could be an ‘easy and discreet first step’.

Con: Lack of crucial human interaction

While some apps can connect users with a licensed therapist, “most offer a fully automated service that bypasses the human element,” a trio of experts from the University of Melbourne wrote for The Conversation. Mental health apps are not “subject to the same standards of care and confidentiality as a registered mental health professional,” the experts added. Some of them aren’t even designed by “mental health professionals.”

While existing research suggests some benefits to the apps, the relationship between patients and therapists remains critical to overall effectiveness, Simon B. Goldberg, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Psych Central . People “simply respond more strongly to interpersonal influences from living people than to fully or partially automated technology,” Goldberg said. “The human-to-human connection is extremely powerful, especially if you’re struggling with mental health issues.”

Pro: Supplement to personal therapy

Mental health apps may not be enough to replace the need for actual professional intervention. But they can still “supplement therapy with symptom trackers, reminders, skill reinforcement, and community functions to set goals and share progress,” wrote Stephanie Collier for Harvard Health Publishing.

Against: Current privacy and data concerns

Considering how much personal data these apps can collect, privacy concerns are one of the main drawbacks. The apps are subject to “standard consumer protection and privacy laws,” the University of Melbourne team noted in The Conversation. In an analysis of the data protection and cybersecurity practices of mHealth apps, digital research organization Mozilla found that most of them scored poorly. Popular mindfulness app Headspace collects data about its users from multiple sources and uses it to market to them. Some chatbot-based apps also “commonly repurpose conversations to predict users’ moods and use anonymized user data” to train their systems, the Melbourne team explained. Many apps “share so-called anonymized data with third parties, such as employers, who sponsor its use.”

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