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Do Mobile Mental Health Apps Actually Help?

Technology

Isadora Teich wrote this article

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One interesting effect of the pandemic is that discussions of mental health and self-care have become more normalized. People are buying more skincare, doing more home workouts, and trying out more mental health and wellness apps than ever before.

However, when it comes to mental health, things are a little more complicated. Buying hair masks or doing the home workouts of fitness influencers is one thing. Entrusting your mental wellness to apps is another.

People are looking to apps for mental health support and money is pouring into the sector. Why has this happened, and how do the apps actually hold up?

Let’s take a look!

The Rise of Mobile Mental Health Apps

Exactly how big is this market? Well, according to PRNewswire:

The global mental health apps market size is expected to reach USD 17.5 billion by 2030, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc.

Most of these apps aim to help users cope with anxiety and depression.

The depression and anxiety management application type segment accounted for over 25.0% share in 2021 owing to the rising prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders, along with the rising awareness regarding applications for the treatment of these conditions.

So, why is this such a lucrative market? One large contributing factor is that the American healthcare system notoriously fails patients.

For example, according to CNN, at the height of the pandemic, 68% of nearly 3,400 community clinics that serve low-income people with mental health and substance abuse issues had to turn people away because they were so full.

Reports show that post-pandemic, Americans are suffering the most collectively with mental health amongst 9 other western nations. However, mental health care here is the least accessible.

High costs, long wait times, and maybe the inability to find a therapist at all have caused many people to look for other solutions.

Via NAMI

Mobile apps are easy to find, accessible, and many are even free. Users don’t have to wait months either. However, are the current crop of mental health apps out there a viable option? Can they replace therapy?

What Does The Research Say?

Ultimately, it makes a lot of sense that people would turn to mental health apps. If you have ever waited almost a year for an appointment or contacted a dozen practices only to be turned away from them all, you would want to try something else too.

Unfortunately, research indicates that these apps may not be the replacement for mental health care that many people need. According to Harvard Health Publishing:

Research looking at randomized controlled trials of mobile app mental health interventions with almost 50,000 patients did not find “convincing evidence” that any mobile app intervention greatly improved outcomes related to people’s anxiety, depression, smoking or drinking, thoughts of suicide, or feelings of well-being.

The Power of Belief

Interestingly, however, a different study shared by Harvard indicates that our belief in and relationship to these apps to help may be more meaningful than the apps themselves. This study compared users of the popular mental health app Headspace to a fake version without a mindfulness component.

Users of both apps reported an improvement in outcomes, including increased mindfulness, even while using the fake app without a mindfulness component. This may indicate that it is our belief and trust in these apps that matter, more than what each app offers.

While some may paint this as proof that these apps don’t work, it is more complex than that. Remember, research into them is new, as are the apps themselves.

Something else to consider is that there are numerous modalities of traditional in-person therapy, including Psychodynamic, Behavioral, and CBT. In reality, all of them actually show similar positive results.

Why is that?

It is because what really helps a patient improve is building a strong relationship with their therapist, regardless of the methods the therapist uses. If a patient can trust a therapist and believe in what they offer, they will likely improve.

In this way, therapists and apps may actually be quite similar.

At Present, Mental Health Apps Cannot Replace Traditional Therapy

As of now, they are not a replacement for a human therapist for a few reasons. In many cases, the technology is simply not good enough to respond to the complex needs of the human mind. However, in the future, this may change.

Another reason is that the human element is a core part of what gives patients positive outcomes, more so than a tool or psychotherapy method. Building a positive relationship with someone who can help support, guide, and lead you on the path of healing is incredibly beneficial.

Also, not all apps are good. While some can be helpful, others are glitchy, expensive, and very limited in what they offer.

While some of these apps are free AI-based mental health helpers, others connect you to licensed therapists. One popular company, BetterHelp, is known both for partnering with influencers and controversy.

There are many accusations against BetterHelp. These include it offering subpar service at a premium price. Also, they might record your personal conversations with therapists and sell that data. Lack of privacy is actually a huge concern with many mental health apps.

This has led to intensive ethical debates. Is encouraging influencers to perhaps exaggerate their own mental health issues to market a questionable mental health service ethical? Should influencers make money from the mental health struggles of their fans?

So, What Can These Apps Do?

If you have severe mental health issues or are in crisis, an app alone will likely not be what you need. In these cases, a proper diagnosis and a relationship with a human therapist who can help you progress are incredibly important.

However, apps can work well for those with milder struggles. They can also be helpful in addition to therapy.

Mobile apps can complement therapy through symptom trackers, reminders, reinforcement of skills, and community features to set goals and share progress.

Keep in mind that mental illness covers a wide spectrum and everyone experiences it differently. Here is how that looks in the US.

Via NAMI

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, there is a large gap when it comes to receiving mental healthcare in the US. Mobile mental health apps, at least as they function currently, are not an adequate replacement for that care.

However, this does not mean that they serve no purpose at all. For those with minor issues, or who are looking for something to supplement therapy, they can provide help.

It is likely they will improve and evolve with time too.

What do you think? Have you tried any of these apps? Would you recommend them?

Comment below.

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