obspred/Pixabay

obspred/Pixabay

Finding ways to destigmatize mental health care and increase its accessibility has become a critical issue on a global scale. And mobile apps are doing wonders to address it.

It may come as no surprise, given their ubiquity in the modern world, that mobile apps are beginning to permeate the arena of mental healthcare in a major way. As of 2013, there were more than 1,500 depression-related apps in commercial app stores, and there’s evidence suggesting that such apps have offered real benefits to their users.

Overall, however, relatively little legitimate research has been conducted to measure their efficacy, and concerns remain that they may actually hinder recovery. Nonetheless, the potential for mobile apps to affect large-scale change in a more affordable way than traditional mental healthcare outlets is an exciting prospect.

Tools for Targeting Mental Health

Mental health and its treatment (or lack thereof) is a global issue with very real consequences. One in four people around the world will experience some mental or neurological disorder in his or her lifetime, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 450 million people currently suffer from these conditions. Remarkably, only about a third of those people will ever seek treatment from a professional because of limited access, prohibitive cost of care, or social stigmas, as the Guardian explains.

Clearly, the pervasiveness of untreated mental illness is a dire issue, and apps have proven to be an effective tool in beginning to address this crisis. Headspace, a guided meditation app, has provided an affordable solution for millions of people struggling with anxiety and stress, according to the New York Post. Of equal importance, this app has begun to shift the conversation around a practice that, not long ago, was largely dismissed as “weird” or “niche.” Meditation is quickly becoming a widespread and universally accepted practice, and there is a growing body of research supporting its myriad mental and physical benefits, as Forbes reports. (Can’t focus? High blood pressure? Try meditating!)

Still other apps, like Joyable, seek to help those with social anxiety issues. Within this app, a user’s social anxiety is measured by the clinically validated Social Phobia Inventory questionnaire. The results are then used to create a treatment program tailored to the user’s specific needs, and those users subsequently pay a subscription fee for a three-month package grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). According to the developers, 93% of clients experience a decline in their social anxiety; among these clients, anxiety levels are reduced by an average of 39%.

A Word of Caution

Health organizations around the world are recognizing apps’ potential as a viable means of providing mental care — in 2013, the WHO recommended “the promotion of self-care….through the use of electronic and mobile health technologies,” and the UK’s National Health Service has endorsed a short list of online mental health resources, according to Nature. Still, research concerning such apps is extremely limited: for all of the 1,500 depression-related apps on the market, only 32 research papers in total have been published on the subject — many of which were sponsored by the developers themselves, rather than independent researchers.

This lack of thorough research is concerning not only because sensitive user information may be at risk, but more importantly because these unvetted apps may have damaging, if unintended, consequences.

For example, when Sweden’s government introduced an app designed to reduce risky drinking habits in college students, men who were randomly assigned the app actually ended up drinking more frequently than before. Researchers speculated that this unexpected outcome was a result of overconfidence in the app’s ability to reduce the negative effects of drinking — or simply that the student subjects had turned the app into a drinking game.

A group of Australian researchers, meanwhile, reviewed 82 commercially available apps for those suffering from bipolar disorder, and found that some of those apps gave users “critically wrong” and potentially harmful information (one such app suggested that those in the middle of a manic episode drink hard liquor as a sleep aid), see their research in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Room for Improvement

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In any case, apps have shown plenty of potential as valuable tools in the treatment of mental health around the world — but of course, continued research and extensive testing must be conducted to ensure that these apps are both effective and safe.

As always, new and innovative approaches will be critical to the advancement of new and innovative apps, which is why accessible and easy-to-use development platforms are so important. And with options like Infinite Monkeys, the possibilities for changing the world are limitless.