Can mobile phone apps improve your mental health?

  • The mental health apps industry is booming, but scientists and clinicians are questioning whether these apps are safe and effective.
  • A meta-review of mobile phone-based interventions for mental health shows limited evidence of their overall effectiveness, but the results are “strongly suggestive” of some benefits.
  • Other research shows that when used appropriately, some mental health apps can enhance the therapeutic process.

Venture capitalists and online developers are taking advantage of the growing demand for therapeutic apps and other mobile phone interventions for mental health.

In fact, the mental health apps market is expected to exceed $3.3 billion by 2027, marking an annual growth rate of 20.5% from 2021. According to the American Psychological Association (APA)the growing interest of private equity firms investing in mental health apps has been largely fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent reports suggest up to 20,000 Mental health apps exist today, with Headspace and Calm among the most widely used options.

But whether mental health apps and text-based interventions actually work remains to be seen.

A meta-review published in January 2022 looked at the effectiveness of mobile phone-based interventions for mental health symptoms, including:

The review included the results of 14 meta-analyses with 47,940 participants in 145 randomized controlled trials. The authors looked at a wide range of mobile phone-based interventions, such as:

Virtual therapy visits with mental health professionals were not part of the study.

Based on the data analyzed, the researchers found no convincing evidence that cellphone-based interventions effectively treated people’s symptoms.

However, the results showed “highly suggestive evidence” that cellphone-based interventions had the potential to improve anxiety, depression and stress. They also suggested that SMS interventions could help people quit smoking. The researchers recommended that more research be conducted to explore these avenues.

Simon B. GoldbergPhD, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the study, said that while previous research suggests some benefits for smartphone-based interventions, the therapeutic alliance between client and advisor continues to be beneficial for overall efficiency.

“I suspect that humans simply react more strongly to interpersonal influences from living humans than to fully or partially automated technology,” Goldberg told Psych Central.

“Human connection is especially powerful, especially when dealing with mental health issues.”

As the technology for smartphone-based interventions continues to develop, Goldberg said the methods may yield better results. For example, machine learning-based algorithms could personalize content to tailor an individual’s therapeutic experience.

“It’s also possible that these interventions are only moderately effective on average,” Goldberg said, adding that some interventions, like CBT-based applications, may be more effective than others.

“It still allows for the possibility that some people will benefit a lot (while others will benefit very little), as well as the possibility that the technologies will be a useful first line of assistance or prevention.”

C.Vaile WrightPhD, senior director of healthcare innovation at APA, said one of the biggest challenges in the field of mental health apps is the lack of standardization and regulation, which includes research, rigorous testing and verification.

As such, some critics have called the mental health app industry “Wild West therapy.”

“As a consumer, it can be really difficult to figure out what’s good and what’s not, and then what’s effective and what’s not effective,” Wright said over the phone.

Many mental health apps aren’t grounded in psychological science, with some spreading false mental health information or leading to undesirable results.

According to Wright, possible risks associated with mental health apps can include anything from increasing symptomatology to disabling the therapeutic process.

“That would probably be our biggest concern — not that it doesn’t help at all, but that it actually hurts,” Wright said.

Goldberg’s study notes that mobile phone-based interventions could be considered a cost-effective way to reduce mental health symptoms and help people quit smoking.

He also notes that more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these interventions for today’s digitally-focused youth.

According to Wright, mental health apps might be more helpful to “digital natives,” like young people and teens, compared to some adults. She said other groups who are less likely to seek traditional therapies, such as men, could also benefit.

“Similarly, for individuals in communities of color, this could be an intervention that connects some of that health equity gapadded Wright. “But I don’t think we know that right now.”

Other advantages

With mental illness affecting Tens of millions in the United States each year, mental health apps have the potential to reach wider populations than traditional psychotherapy.

Wright said that even before the pandemic, the field of mental health care was facing a labor shortage, leading to a large number of unmet needs for mental health interventions.

“We need to think more innovatively about how we are going to approach the public health of our country – and I think technology is a clear path for us to do that because it is more accessible; because it can be more affordable,” she said.

Like a recent APA article notes, mental health apps may also get more people into therapy.

Wright said mental health apps could also help break down stigma-related barriers because you can use them with a degree of anonymity, compared to a visit to a psychotherapist’s office.

It’s important to note that mental health apps are not designed to replace a conversation with a therapist or medical treatment. Some people use both together, and research from 2020 suggests that mental health apps can enhance the face-to-face therapeutic process with a professional.

Wright said as a consumer, it’s a good idea to do your homework before trying any mental health apps. Websites like One Mind Psyber Guide Rate and review different mental health apps to provide you with more information than just relying on star ratings in the app store.

You may also want to know how a mental health app will use your data and if it is sold or protected.

“The wellness app space is an unregulated area,” Wright said. “That means nobody tells them they have to protect your private health information from hackers, so it becomes really critical that consumers read the fine print.”

Despite the volume of existing research, therapeutic applications and other text-based technologies are still relatively new and constantly being improved.

While the overall effectiveness of these technologies for mental health issues remains questionable, there are also consistent evidence that they can provide a modest benefit.

“This could still have a major impact on public health, although a certain proportion of users need more intensive intervention to benefit,” Goldberg said.

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