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Can an App Help Take You Out of a Depressive Funk?

Mental Health Apps are Trending High but They Have Some Issues and Challenges

On Aging
On Aging
Jan 4 · 4 min read

Health apps are having an important impact on a wide swath of healthcare issues, trends, and strategies. They stretch across a wide range of capabilities, with claims to help monitor and improve sleep habits, improve cognition, manage medication, prevent falls, diagnose skin problems, check your vision, measure your hearing, monitor blood glucose, take your blood pressure, perform an EKG, help with weight loss and exercise, and chart your progress related to depression and anxiety issues.

Mental Health Apps
The apps related to mental health are becoming more widely available and acceptable, and they are seen as alternatives or add-ons to face-to-face therapy. An analysis of mental health apps published by Nature in December of 2019 noted that, in 2017, “more than 318,000 health-related mobile apps were available for consumers of which 490 unique apps were targeted at mental health and behavioral disorders.”

How are people using such apps? Do they actually work?

A Useful Service
To answer such questions, an online service called PsyberGuide may come in handy. “Looking for a Mental Health App? There are lots to choose from and we’re here to help,” the site proclaims in bold letters at the top of its home page. Established in 2013, PsyberGuide is a non-profit organization of mental health experts who operate out of the University of California, Irvine and Northwestern University. “Its goal is to provide accurate and reliable information free of preference, bias, and endorsement.”

PsyberGuide currently rates more than 170 mental health apps, and, for some of the listings, provides in-depth reviews. These apps, which can be Web-based, Android, or IOS, are scored from one to five based on credibility, user experience, and transparency. For example, the top three in the credibility score category, which basically tells users how likely an app will work, are This Way Up, Brain HQ, and Headspace.

Benefits of Mental Health Apps
In a paper published in World Psychiatry in October 2019, mental health professionals from the Netherlands and Sweden did an extensive meta-analysis of randomized control trials (RCTs) related to app interventions for mental health problems. They wrote: “Although mental health apps are not intended to replace professional clinical services, the present findings highlight the potential of apps to serve as a cost‐effective, easily accessible, and low intensity intervention for those who cannot receive standard psychological treatment.”

The aforementioned analysis published in Nature noted five benefits of using such apps: 1. They are timely, anonymous, portable and flexible. 2. They can reach people who might not utilize professional treatment. 3. Younger generations are familiar with using apps. 4. They can deliver large-scale interventions to low-income economies. 5. “Individuals can be supported in applying treatment-related skills in real life situations, in which behavior change is at its most vulnerable, and where clinicians often struggle to support individuals appropriately.”

Challenges Related to Usage
However, there are challenges related to usage. For example, a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article published in November 2019 pointed to an app for PTSD that had 166,800 downloads, but after one week, the number of users dropped to 26,100. An Apple asthma-related mobile app initially had 7,593 users, but, six months later, only 175 users remained. And a study on personal fitness apps showed 79,953 users, with only 499 users staying with them after 37 days.

In a December 2019 Journal of Affective Disorders paper, researchers found that nearly 50% of users of such apps drop out, noting that “high dropout rates present a threat to the validity of RCTs of mental health apps.”

Additionally, there are warning signs to take under consideration. It was noted in an November 2014 Scientific American article that “psychiatric apps deserve the same scrutiny as medical devices and have raised concerns over their safety and effectiveness,” adding that more rigorous studies are needed to “determine how they might complement other forms of therapy and help people make more informed decisions about which ones to use.”

For example, “be wary of apps designed by software companies that fail to include insight from a medical professional (such as many of the hypnosis apps out there), as well as apps claiming to use audio tones to induce certain mental states, such as decreased anxiety (there is no scientific validity to these claims).”

Finally, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, who partners with PsyberGuide, has lots of links to relevant articles about mental health apps that are worth checking out. Bottom line: Probably the best common-sense advice is simply to take some time out and look through all the literature and try some of these mental health apps out before making any final decision. They just might save you from having to take an expensive trip to a therapist.

Thanks for stopping by,


On Aging

Written by

On Aging

Posts from George Lorenzo, writer, researcher, editor, designer, and curator of Old Anima.

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