Do Mental Health Apps Help Or Hinder?

Mar 20, 2019

There are tens of thousands of mental health mobile apps, with new ones coming and going every day. Miami University researchers looked at studies about those apps - and hundreds of apps themselves - to learn whether they're helping or hurting people.

"What we found is that it's really important for consumers and health providers to really take an in-depth look at the features of these apps and whether they're providing quality content that aligns with best practices for whatever the problem area is," says Joshua Magee, assistant professor of psychology.

Magee and graduate student Sarah Adut reviewed hundreds of apps and research surrounding and evaluating such apps. They used evaluation frameworks like the American Psychiatric Association App Evaluation Model, which considers areas such as pricing, safety and developer information.

Their study reports 80 percent of Americans under 45 want to use apps to monitor their mental health.

With so many apps on the market, Magee determines most are ineffective, nonfunctional or useless, or have privacy concerns.

"A number of apps out there, we found, do seem to be disseminating inaccurate or even harmful information," Magee says.

However, some were found to be helpful, especially for education or tracking symptoms.

"If individuals are interested in measuring what their depression symptoms are looking like over time, there's a number of apps that do a great job of that," says Magee. "In fact, sometimes monitoring someone's symptoms can be helpful in and of itself in reducing those symptoms."

He recommends consulting with your physician and using a tool such as PsyberGuide, a nonprofit website that helps consumers determine if mental health apps are credible, transparent and protect user information.

From Miami University:

Key findings: the good
• General strengths include symptom-tracking, psychoeducational components and high user engagement.
• Support for suicide prevention and self-harm revealed "excellent potential."

Key findings: the bad
• Many mental health apps are largely ineffective and nonfunctional.
• Weaknesses include privacy concerns and limited integration to link apps with professional treatment.
• One test of thousands of commercial anxiety apps found only 52 functional apps that offered techniques that reduce symptoms.
• A significant number of eating disorder support apps provide poor or harmful advice.
• Only 4 percent of "mindfulness" apps included both training and education.