The Truth about Mental Health Apps: Opportunities & Obstacles

In today’s world, technology is often viewed as a necessity rather than as a commodity. Widespread access to technological information is far from unusual. In fact, for many people, technology is more readily available than resources such as mental health support. Depending on a variety of factors, some may even feel more comfortable relying on technological support than on that of a mental health professional. With this in mind, mental health apps have become part of a rapidly growing industry over the course of the past several years. This, of course, raises questions regarding the effectiveness of these apps.

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Reliability of mental wellness apps 

Of all the teenagers and adults who own smartphones, approximately 60 percent of them have downloaded at least one app dedicated to mental health support (Marshall et al., 2020a). People download apps of this variety for several reasons, but there are some alarming trends that exist across this demographic. When looking for mental health apps to download, it seems that people tend to focus on a few factors that in no way indicate the true efficacy of the apps themselves, such as the following:


1. Ease of use. Of the people who have downloaded mental health apps, over half of them seem to value ease of use over trust. In other words, apps that are easy to navigate are far more likely to draw someone’s attention than one that is trusted by mental health professionals. This suggests that, to many consumers, the effectiveness of an app is not an important consideration, at least when compared with ease of use. 

2. Cost. Several studies have found that mental health apps with higher prices are far less likely to be downloaded, while apps with lower prices – or no cost at all – have significantly higher ratings. These correlations exist regardless of an app’s credentials, demonstrating that people are more likely to use a free or relatively inexpensive app without paying attention to its credibility. While it’s not necessarily the case that cost and effectiveness are always positively correlated, this finding suggests that people are more likely to consider the cost than the true efficacy of the app itself.

3. Ratings and reviews. Currently, it seems that the primary way that people decide which mental health app to download is by relying on app ratings and reviews in the app store. In a world where we can buy fake followers, fake likes, and fake review, though, the app store has gotten recent negative press about scams and fake reviews. In some cases, people are hired by app creators to leave reviews, even if they have no true knowledge about the product. Some are even automatically created. One way to tell that a review is fake happens all too often; the review will mention nonexistent features, raving about a specific function of the app that isn’t even included. (Marshall et al., 2020a). In this way, if consumers see an app that has five stars without closely examining the sources of the reviews, they may risk downloading an app that is both unreliable and ineffective. 

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Legitimacy of mental health apps

Another concerning statistic has to do with the research conducted regarding the efficacy of mental health apps. More than 90% of the published research on the effectiveness of mental health apps has been conducted by the organizations involved in the development of the apps themselves (Marshall et al., 2020a). Similarly, a recent study of over 1,000 mental health apps found that only 2% have published peer-reviewed evidence of efficacy (Lau et al., 2020). While the findings of this research has found favorable outcomes for consumers of such apps, this of course raises the issue of bias. With this in mind, until other studies are conducted by independent researchers and unaffiliated third parties, there will continue to be doubts about the true effectiveness and reliability of these apps. 

When it comes to the marketing and advertisement of mental health apps, the vast majority are intended to be used as self-help interventions. The aforementioned study of 1,000 apps found that only one percent involved an electronic therapist and that nearly two percent were designed as supplements to in-person therapy. Furthermore, less than five percent targeted individuals with psychological disorders and less than one percent were intended to help people with other chronic illnesses (Lau et al., 2020). This points to the doubts regarding the legitimacy of apps of this nature. Nearly any app can be marketed as a self-help tool without any reliable research to support its claims, and, as demonstrated by the previously mentioned findings, as long as it’s relatively cheap and easy to use, consumers will download it. 


This can prove dangerous in many cases, especially when the apps offer unfounded advice to their users. One study found that more than a quarter of apps for bipolar disorder gave harmful advice, such as suggesting that alcohol could help to induce sleep during a manic episode. Another study found that half of eating disorder apps reviewed contained poor advice that actually worsened its users’ symptoms (Wang et al., 2020).

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Privacy of mental health apps

As we know, the information that an individual shares in therapy sessions is strictly confidential, unless the mental health professional in question believes that their patient is in danger. This could not be farther from the truth when it comes to mental health apps. 70% of mental health apps do not have privacy policies available to their users, which raises serious concerns about privacy and confidentiality, especially in terms of users’ personal information (Marshall et al., 2020b). Without privacy policies, any given consumer’s anonymity may be threatened and their personal information may be used without their knowledge or permission. In this way, the developers of mental health apps that do not include privacy policies are betraying the trust of their users while said users are unwittingly exposing personal information that would otherwise be kept confidential.


Use mental health apps to supplement therapy

Research has found that mental health apps can help consumers when used as supplemental forms of support. In a study with 34 participants with anxiety, an app was used to supplement cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The app allowed participants to practice strategies that they had learned in therapy and included a portal that let participants communicate with their therapists outside of the in-person sessions. Participants attended eight weekly sessions with their therapists and used the app an average of twelve times between each session. At a follow-up appointment two months later, 86% of the participants no longer met diagnostic criteria for anxiety (Silk et al., 2020). Compared with the research on the efficacy of CBT on its own, these participants demonstrated significant improvements in a relatively brief period of time, as CBT can last up to twenty sessions.


Recommendations for future use of mental health apps

As demonstrated by the research findings, mental health apps are most effective when backed by science and used in conjunction with regular therapy. So, if you’re interested in using a reliable mental health app to supplement your therapy sessions, bear in mind the following recommendations:


1. Thoroughly examine the evidence base, cost, and app content. Before you download an app, make sure you do your own research. Find out where the app got its information, if anywhere. You can also discuss the app with your therapist if you’d like a professional opinion. In some cases, your therapist may be able to help you evaluate the cost and even look for financing options.

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2. Look for a privacy policy and an informed consent section. Before you unload a bunch of personal information, make sure the app has a privacy policy. If the app has sections dedicated to journaling but no section on confidentiality, you may want to consider using another app. It’s important to make sure that your personal information will be protected and not shared without your consent.

3. Work with your therapist to monitor your outcomes. If you tell your therapist about your interest in an app and let them help you find a reliable one, they’ll most likely want to know about your progress. Share your thoughts about the app with your therapist. They may have suggestions for you to get the most out of this supplemental form of support. 


LIFE Intelligence: Science-Backed Self Care App

Now that you know what to look for and what to avoid when it comes to mental health apps, consider LIFE Intelligence. While it’s free to download and easy to navigate, LIFE relies on real science every step of the way. Peer-reviewed research is cited on every page of the app, teaching you everything from cognitive behavioral therapy to anger management skills. Used in conjunction with therapy, you can practice strategies you’ve learned in therapy 24/7, for pocket practice in-between sessions. And beyond therapy-specific topics, you can also get questions to other areas of life, like work productivity and leadership skills. LIFE is a verified way to address difficulties with respect to your career, relationships, personal well-being.

Abby Stark
February 25, 2021

References: 

Lau, N., O'Daffer, A., Colt, S., Joyce, P., Palermo, T. M., McCauley, E., & Rosenberg, A. R. 

(2020). Android and iPhone mobile apps for psychosocial wellness and stress management: Systematic search in app stores and literature review. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 8(5), e17798.

Levin, M. E., Navarro, C., Cruz, R. A., & Haeger, J. (2019) Comparing in-the-moment skill 

coaching effects from tailored versus non-tailored acceptance and commitment therapy mobile apps in a non-clinical sample. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 48(3), 200-216.

Marshall, J. M., Dunstan, D. A., Bartik, W. (2020a). Clinical or gimmickal: The use and 

effectiveness of mobile mental health apps for treating anxiety and depression. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 54(1), 20-28.

Marshall, J. M., Dunstan, D. A., & Bartik, W. (2020b). Smartphone psychology: New 

approaches towards safe and efficacious mobile mental health apps. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 51(3), 214.

Silk, J. S., Pramana, G., Sequeira, S. L., Lindhiem, O., Kendall, P. C., Rosen, D., & Parmanto, B. 

(2020). Using a smartphone app and clinician portal to enhance brief cognitive behavioral therapy for childhood anxiety disorders. Behavior therapy, 51(1), 69-84.

Wang, L., Fagan, C., & Yu. C. L. (2020). Popular mental health apps (MH apps) as a 

complement to telepsychotherapy: Guidelines for consideration. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 30(2), 265-273.

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