Thanks to technology, you now have the ability to seek mental health treatment directly from your phone. For example, if you struggle with stress or anxiety, apps like Calm or Headspace can be a help. Struggling with depression? Talkspace Online Therapy is worth trying.
There even apps dedicated to specific mental health needs. Quit That! promises to help people beat unhealthy habits or addictions. eMoods can be used for people with bipolar disorder. And, notOK is a suicide prevention app.
But, before downloading and using these apps, you should be aware of the possible pros and cons.
The Pros of Mental Health Care Apps
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, here are the advantages of mobile care:
Convenience: Treatment can take place anytime and anywhere (e.g., at home in the middle of the night or on a bus on the way to work) and may be ideal for those who have trouble with in-person appointments.
Anonymity: Clients can seek treatment options without involving other people.
An introduction to care: Technology may be a good first step for those who have avoided mental health care in the past.
Lower cost: Some apps are free or cost less than traditional care.
Service to more people: Technology can help mental health providers offer treatment to people in remote areas or to many people in times of sudden need (e.g., following a natural disaster or terror attack).
Interest: Some technologies might be more appealing than traditional treatment methods, which may encourage clients to continue therapy.
24-hour service: Technology can provide round-the-clock monitoring or intervention support.
Consistency: Technology can offer the same treatment program to all users.
Support: Technology can complement traditional therapy by extending an in-person session, reinforcing new skills, and providing support and monitoring.
Objective data collection: Technology can quantitatively collect information such as location, movement, phone use, and other information.
Additional benefits include:
High-engagement rates. A study from Harvard University’s Pooja Chandrashekar found that; “Because patients typically use apps on their own time without clinical oversight, they must be intrinsically motivated to engage with the app. Evidence from the literature suggest that patient engagement can be improved through: (I) real-time engagement; (II) usage reminders; (III) gamified interactions.
Self-monitoring features. Chandrashekar also found that; “App-based features that enable users to self-monitor their mood by periodically reporting their thoughts, behaviors, and actions can increase emotional self-awareness (ESA), which has been found to be implicated in anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Increasing ESA, defined as the ability to identify and understand one’s own emotions, has been shown to reduce symptoms of mental illness and improve coping skills.”
The Cons of Mental Health Apps
The disadvantages, according to NIMH, are:
Effectiveness: The biggest concern with technological interventions is obtaining scientific evidence that they work and that they work as well as traditional methods.
For whom and for what: Another concern is understanding if apps work for all people and for all mental health conditions.
Privacy: Apps deal with very sensitive personal information so app makers need to be able to guarantee privacy for app users.
Guidance: There are no industry-wide standards to help consumers know if an app or other mobile technology is proven effective.
Regulation: The question of who will or should regulate mental health technology and the data it generates needs to be answered.
Overselling: There is some concern that if an app or program promises more than it delivers, consumers may turn away from other, more effective therapies.
Some other drawbacks that you should be aware of are:
Some insurance companies will not cover e-therapy.
You may not have access to out-of-state providers.
An online therapist can not respond to a crisis.
Online therapy is not suitable for those with serious psychiatric illnesses.
Online therapists may not be able to see body language or vocal signals.
They often only focus on one condition.
Some apps are designed without the involvement of mental health professionals.
For those who can not work with a mental health professional because of a lack of time, resources, or accessibility, mental health apps do have some advantages. At the very least, they can provide with some sort of guidance or support -- which is better than nothing. Even more promising, they can at least help remove the barriers and stigma surrounding mental health.
However, they shouldn’t be relied on as a replacement for traditional therapy. As of now, online therapy isn’t as effective. And, there are also legal and ethical concerns that need to be addressed.
If anything, for the time being, mental health care apps should be viewed as a supplement for traditional therapy.