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Do Mental Health Apps Work

06 April 2016 Written by 

Smartphone Apps For Mental Health Increase, But Some Are Suspicious Of Their Effectiveness 

From Scientific American: Type 'depression' into the Apple App Store and a list of at least a hundred programs will pop up on the screen. There are apps that diagnose depression (Depression Test), track moods (Optimism) and help people to “think more positive” (Affirmations!). There's Depression Cure Hypnosis (“The #1 Depression Cure Hypnosis App in the App Store”), Gratitude Journal (“the easiest and most effective way to rewire your brain in just five minutes a day”), and dozens more. And that's just for depression. There are apps pitched at people struggling with anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders and addiction.

This burgeoning industry may meet an important need. Estimates suggest that about 29% of people will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that many of those people — up to 55% in developed countries and 85% in developing ones — are not getting the treatment they need. Mobile health apps could help to fill the gap (see 'Mobilizing mental health'). Given the ubiquity of smartphones, apps might serve as a digital lifeline — particularly in rural and low-income regions — putting a portable therapist in every pocket. “We can now reach people that up until recently were completely unreachable to us,” says Dror Ben-Zeev, who directs the mHealth for Mental Health Program at the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Public-health organizations have been buying into the concept. In its Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2020, the WHO recommended “the promotion of self-care, for instance, through the use of electronic and mobile health technologies.” And the UK National Health Service (NHS) website NHS Choices carries a short list of online mental-health resources, including a few apps, that it has formally endorsed.

But the technology is moving a lot faster than the science. Although there is some evidence that empirically based, well-designed mental-health apps can improve outcomes for patients, the vast majority remain unstudied. They may or may not be effective, and some may even be harmful. Scientists and health officials are now beginning to investigate their potential benefits and pitfalls more thoroughly, but there is still a lot left to learn and little guidance for consumers.

“If you type in 'depression', its hard to know if the apps that you get back are high quality, if they work, if they're even safe to use,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association's Smartphone App Evaluation Task Force. “Right now it almost feels like the Wild West of health care.”

Read More: Mental Health: There's An App For That

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