Do mental health apps work?

One of the things I have seen a lot of lately is apps that claim to be able to help you improve your mental health and get treatment. There are a bunch out there – this includes apps like What’s Up, Mood Kit and MY3, among many, many others.

Here’s the important question: Do they work?

I bring this up because there’s been a bit of controversy with one app, BetterHelp. The App says that it will hook users up with licensed therapists. The controversy, however, emerged with many YouTubers who had engaged in sponsored ads with BetterHelp.

As long as the sponsorship is transparent, I don’t personally see an issue, but problems emerged with BetterHelp itself. First, it’s terms of services explicitly couldn’t guarantee placement with a qualified, licensed professional:

We do not control the quality of the Counselor Services and we do not determine whether any Counselor is qualified to provide any specific service as well as whether a Counselor is categorized correctly or matched correctly to you. The Counselor Services are not a complete substitute for a face-to-face examination and/or session by a licensed qualified professional.

Umm…..that’s a major, major problem. That’s beyond not acceptable. Any app that claims it will provide mental health professionals to users has a moral obligation (and I hope a legal one!) to ensure that the counselors themselves actually are licensed professionals, or at least disclose in a VERY publicly way when they are not.

This entire incident got me wondering about these apps. How good are they? Do they work? Are they substitutes for seeing a counselor in a face to face setting?

First, the obvious: Answers to the questions I posed above will vary widely. It all depends, of course, on the quality of service offered.

The most comprehensive answer I could find was in this paper, published in March 2018. The answer varies, of course, but in sections, it seems to be yes:

  • Depression: ” A meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) covering 22 mobile apps revealed that using apps to alleviate symptoms and self-manage depression significantly reduced patients’ depressive symptoms compared to control conditions (g=0.38, P<0.001).” However, the apps work best when depression is mild to moderate, not severe.
  • Anxiety: “A meta-analysis of nine RCTs that evaluated the effects of smartphone-delivered interventions on symptoms of subclinical and diagnosed anxiety disorders revealed that users experienced reductions in total anxiety after using anxiety treatment apps (g=0.33, P<0.001). Additionally, anxiety-focused mobile apps delivered the greatest reductions in anxiety symptoms when paired with face-to-face or internet-based therapies. In fact, replacing outpatient patient-therapist sessions with a mobile app resulted in no significant loss of treatment efficacy.”
  • Schizophrenia: “Self-reported patient experience survey results revealed high adherence, positive user experience, and broad-ranging clinical benefits.”

Wow. So, yes, theoretically, these can work!

I have two additional thoughts. First, hey, if it works, it works. The mental health practitioner shortage is, in my opinion, the greatest crisis affecting mental health, and if apps can help close that gap at an affordable rate, it’s worth using.

Second. however, is this: It has to be a real app, with high quality and scientifically based therapies and design. In the digital day and age, it can be all too easy to design a subpar treatment program that can scam users out of money and provide no clinical benefit. I hope, in the long run, that the federal government will step in and better regulate these apps in order to protect users from negative experiences that can damage their mental health and sap their limited resources.

Do you have any experiences with mental health apps that you want to share? Please let us know in the comments below!

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