Mental Health Apps: Challenges and Benefits
Mental Health Apps: Challenges and Benefits
When COVID-19 erupted and disrupted our traditional modus operandi, preventing us from going to the movies and restaurants – it also prevented us from receiving necessary care. Patients across the globe had to turn to digital solutions to access remote healthcare, regardless of what condition they were combatting. The added stress required a modern solution, and we developed new, digital methods of receiving care, physical or mental.
What Is a Mental Health App?
We already rely on many apps to help us with our daily operations. We use them to find and listen to music, share it with friends and family, or get from one place to another. They became woven into our routines, software that helps us make our tasks easier and more fun. With an abundance of apps we use daily, it’s no wonder we rely on them to receive healthcare. That’s where health apps come in, and today we will focus on the ones for mental health.
Apps for mental health care are applications we use to improve and manage our mental health. They have several purposes and are related to managing our overall health and wellness, data, and progress tracking, or are designed to help us meditate and alleviate stress. The relative ease with which we can access these apps suggests that we can use them independently, in combination with the treatment we are already receiving, or until we transition to in-person care.
The National Institute of Mental Health categorizes mental health apps into six categories: self-management apps, improving thinking skills, skill-training apps, social support apps, passive symptom-tracking apps, and data collection apps. This classification of these apps suggests that the number of available apps has to be high. Indeed, currently, there are around 20 000 apps directed at mental health. This number is not surprising: 800 000, or 11% of the world population, live with some mental health condition.
Given the rising adoption rates of digital health, it is understandable that the global mental health market was valued at $383 billion in 2020. It is projected to grow to more than $530 billion by 2030.
But the rising adoption rates and growing market indicate the sheer volume of these apps but don’t hold any real qualitative significance. At the time of this writing, there are only five apps that the Food and Drug Administration agency has adequately vetted.
Mental Health Applications and FDA
The Food and Drug Administration is a federal agency that regulates public health by controlling the production and manufacturing of food, medication, medical devices, and related products in several fields. The FDA promotes the development of mobile medical apps that improve healthcare and offers patients and medical providers valuable health information. The FDA also regulates the safety of said devices and products. Therapy apps fall under this category: the FDA defines what constitutes a “medical” device or software, and we can recall that, back in 2018, the Apple Smartwatch came with an FDA clearance due to its electrocardiogram, which qualified it as a medical device.
Right now, the FDA has approved five apps for mental health :
In regulating these devices, the federal agency is introducing standards by which this technology can be used and implemented. The regulation of these teletherapy apps is understandable: 40% of mental health patients reported that their mental health deteriorated in 2021. Remote access to care, including mental health care, was necessary during the pandemic when traditional care methods were disrupted. However, much like with many other digital health technologies, mHealth apps showed no signs of slowing down, and their adoption and use have only since increased. That brings us to the question: are they any good?
Challenges with Mental Health Software
According to JMRl, only 6% of health apps developed for mental health and available in the app store published data sources that back up their claims. That means that most of these apps available to download don’t offer proof backed by research that proves their efficacy. Again, if there are 20 000 apps available and the FDA only approved five of them, the average user doesn’t have a lot of options backed up by data.
That leaves us questioning the efficacy of a mental health app. The user is left with either conducting a mountain of research to find an app that might suit their needs or choosing from a limited supply of vetted and research-based applications. But the headache doesn’t stop there.
70% of users of these apps abandon the app after only ten uses, suggesting that this technology, on its own, cannot spark real change for most users as they require a lot more discipline and patient engagement. In other words, to fully maximize the benefits of mental wellness apps, users should rely on them in sync with in-person care or as a transitioning model until receiving therapy from a licensed professional. Therefore, clinical validity is one of the main concerns with this technology.
From there, we see several more universally associated problems with digital health. Patient privacy and security are always a concern considering that the healthcare industry is the number one industry targeted by cybercriminals. Most available apps that help with mental health don’t have proper security, and numerous third parties have access to protected health information stored within these applications.
Benefits of a Mental Health App
Considering the challenges mentioned above, we must also consider the benefits of this technology listed below:
These applications are cost-effective and easy to use. While users still shouldn’t use them independently, we cannot overlook the benefit of fast, easy, and immediate care this technology offers.
Although we’ve seen numerous athletes speak about their battles with mental issues, there is still a stigma surrounding mental care. Some people might be more comfortable relying on a therapy app than an in-person therapist visit. That is okay as long as they educate themselves and are fully aware of the limitations of this technology.
Digital healthcare technologies offer us immediate access to care. mHealth apps, despite some of their limitations, offer users the option to receive care when and how they require it. By sidestepping geographical and similar restrictions, this technology fulfills the most important requirement: it provides treatment to those who need it.
Mental health apps are available to everyone. While some facets of digital healthcare technologies heavily depend on provider recommendations, this is not the case with apps. Instead, regardless of one’s income or education, one can and should inspect this technology in the app store and see whether one can benefit from its use. Given everything written above, we can safely conclude that, with proper and educated use, a mental health app can be a powerful tool for mental care.