With over 190 million smartphone users in the United States, it is no wonder that developers are feverishly working to create the next app that everyone has to have.
Some of the more popular apps are designed to help users improve and maintain their physical health. Apps can track calories, log workouts, record steps taken throughout the day, promote better posture and much more.
But there is a new trend featuring apps for mental health that offer therapy and other mental health services. This gives new meaning to the cliché, “there’s an app for that,” and has people talking about the pros and cons of such apps.
Types of Mental Health Apps
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 61.5 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year—one in every four people. App developers are hoping to reach these vast numbers of people by making access to certain mental health services as easy as grabbing your phone.
There are numerous approaches being used by app developers, but the following general categories encompass the vast majority of those currently available:
- Educational apps. The apps in this category provide information about common mental health conditions. Some provide analysis or testing for the user to help determine if they are suffering from a particular illness.
- Social or community-based apps. These primarily seek to provide emotional support through specialized social networks geared toward sharing personal struggles and receiving mutual encouragement.
- Self-help apps. These claim to enable the user to treat themselves through a variety of methods, including hypnosis, music and meditation.
- Coaching or therapy apps. This category of apps allows user to connect directly to a professional coach or therapist. These connections typically take place through text sessions or one-on-one messaging, but can also involve video chats for more personal interactions.
Do These Apps Actually Help?
At this time, very little specific research has been done to evaluate the usefulness of mental health apps. In 2013, there were 1,536 depression-related apps available for download but just 32 published research articles studying their effectiveness.
There is real value to hearing an encouraging word or sharing your problems with someone who understands what you’re going through. Sometimes having basic tools for coping can actually alleviate many common problems.
However, experts point out that many people suffering mental health concerns need far more than an encouraging word or helpful tip for managing stress or anxiety.
The Upside: Potential Benefits
Those advocating for the use of apps for improving mental health point out potential advantages and benefits, such as:
- Ease of access. No calling for appointments, traveling to offices or waiting in line.
- Variety of options. Technology offers a potentially endless variety of customized and specialized tools for addressing a broad range of needs.
- Less expensive. Many apps offer their potential benefits freely. Even those with fees are less costly than traditional therapy.
- No stigma. Using an app on your own phone offers the ultimate in privacy and anonymity; no one needs to know who you are or that you needed help.
The Downside: Potential Dangers
While not completely dismissing the possible usefulness of mental health apps in specific contexts, many experts are concerned about the harm that could be caused to those truly in need. Some potential drawbacks and dangers are:
- Quick fix mentality. Due to the complex or deep-seated nature of many mental health problems, traditional therapeutic approaches frequently require rigorous in-person sessions and establishing long-term support mechanisms.
- No check-ins. Many people dealing with mental health issues also have related addictions, substance abuse or self-harm tendencies. Apps simply cannot safely replace in-person check-ins for such situations.
- No insurance coverage. Very few insurance programs offer coverage or reimbursement for online or app-based services.
- Weakened therapeutic alliance. To aid in constructive, consistent therapy, the patient-therapist relationship requires time to properly develop.
For the large number of Americans who suffer from various mental health conditions or illnesses, it is very difficult to determine if these types of apps can have any real or lasting benefit. Part of the challenge lies in trying to define exactly what it means to “help.”
But if such apps are to have a real future helping to improve people’s mental health, they will need to be designed by informed, clinical professionals and provide real, meaningful support to their users. Until then, professional treatment is still the best way for treating mental health.