By Juliann Kelly –
With a pandemic forcing people across the globe to shelter in place, in-person interaction is not only limited, it’s discouraged. The result is that anxiety and depression have become increasingly commonplace among average Americans—and this doesn’t count the estimated 18 percent of the population that suffered from these disorders before Covid-19 reared its sick head. Not surprisingly, a search for relief and a desire to connect has led many to turn to their digital devices for comfort.
Americans, in fact, are relying more than ever on smart phone apps of all kinds—and there are more than 3 million of them that are instantly available. Today apps go well beyond providing just gaming, business, education, lifestyle, utility and other traditional services. Thousands have now been developed to bring mental health tools to fingertips of those in need.
Open an app store and search “mental health” and hundreds will surface touting “self-therapy tools,” “free therapy chat,” “mental disorder treatment,” “depression aid,” “improved mental health,” and “mental health evaluations.” Similar to As Seen on TV products, the vast majority of these apps promise to be totally effective at making life easier and less stressful, positioning themselves to be the perfect digital balm for what’s ailing a quarantined world.
But just how effective these digital solutions are is difficult to gauge, especially since so few offer evidence to back up their claims, according to Mobihealthnews.com.
The lack of widespread clinical evidence, of course, doesn’t discount their potential worth. But it does raise some red flags that place the onus on the downloader to judge their effectiveness.
And even those apps clearly backed by professional standards, may not work in every case. A substantial number of apps, for example, now provide access to face-to-face video therapy with licensed professionals. But video conferencing may not be a feasible or acceptable solution for everyone. The World Health Organization points out that nearly two thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek professional help whether in person or online. Fears of stigma and lack of anonymity or socioeconomic and geographical constraints discourage many from seeking needed treatment.
Yet video conferencing does promise newfound support for those in need, especially for those who cannot afford or do not have access to in-person, professional treatment.
Mental health apps may also help to offset the current shortage of mental health professionals. Merritt Hawkins, a physician search firm, helped underscore this point in its 2018 study that revealed there are approximately nine psychiatrists per 100,000 Americans, a disparity that grows even larger in rural areas.
Even in areas where the shortage of mental health professionals isn’t as acute as in other regions, appropriate apps could provide a service boost, especially for those who need it most. A recent American Psychological Association(APA) study suggests teenagers or people with less severe mental issues could rely on apps for help, freeing up in-person professional service for those who desperately need it.
Mental health apps may be readily available, but as noted caution needs to be taken before they become part of any treatment. These apps are part of a wide-open market that can make their remedial claims suspect, especially since the apps in question will provide guidance but not necessarily link a patient into a live video conference with a licensed therapist. An article published in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, for example, reports that nearly 10,000 mental health apps on the market are not regulated by health agencies or the federal government. Another concern is whether these apps adequately protect the personal health information of their users.
Additional fears are growing for apps in this wide-open market because generally they are not developed by mental health experts. Their development, in fact, often lacks input from of specialists or academic institutions and fails to strictly follow ethical guidelines.
Ultimately, mental health apps offer the promise to help those who might otherwise be left on their own. But they come with a strong buyer beware label that mark them, at best, as supplemental support until proven otherwise.