Mental Health Apps On Rise, Little Accountability: Experts

Feeling overwhelmed this holiday season? Suffering from anxiety and stress? Wish you could carry a portable therapist? 

There’s an app for that. 

“Health apps are among the fastest growing areas,” said Dr. Niranjan Karnik, Associate Dean for Community Behavioral Health and Innovation at Rush University. 

From mindfulness and meditation to ones that deal more seriously with depression and suicide prevention, apps designed to treat mental health have exploded in popularity.

“The challenge is which ones really work and which ones don’t” said Dr. Karnik. 

Experts who’ve studied mental health apps said these digital therapists can provide some benefit but emphasized that they should never replace a real doctor. Among their chief concerns, many apps are not developed with doctor or patient input and can provide bad information. 

“There was an app for bipolar disorder, which instructed people if they were having a manic episode to take a shot of hard alcohol. This is terrible advice,” said Dr. Stephen Schueller, former Northwestern University professor and current assistant professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine. 

Mental health apps are rarely regulated, experts said. The Food and Drug Administration has only approved one mental health app, called Reset, which is designed to treat substance abuse. The rest is up to user discretion. 

“No one is going through that content, making sure that it’s safe and reasonable,” Dr. Schueller said. 

Dr. Schueller, in partnership with Northwestern, helped create the Psyberguide, a system that rates mental health apps based on credibility, user experience and transparency. 

“When someone downloads a health app from the app marketplace, they should have confidence that that app can actually do what it says it does,” Dr. Schueller said. 

Experts said when mental health apps are well-developed, they can be extremely beneficial by providing people in crisis with a daily routine, especially in areas where professional help might not be readily available. 

“The vast majority of people with mental health problems don’t get treatment whatsoever,” said David Mohr, Northwestern Professor of Preventive Medicine and Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. “There’s not enough providers. We’ll never have enough providers to treat everybody, and even if we did, they won’t always be where the patients are.” 

Mohr also stressed that technology should never replace psychotherapy and won’t work for everybody, but apps can be helpful tools in an ever-increasing digital world. 

“We can reach large numbers of people, and we can potentially provide treatments that are cost-effective,” Mohr said.

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