How to choose a safe, private and effective mental health app

According to the National Institute of Mental health, there are thousands of mobile applications that claim to treat or even ‘cure’ your mental health condition. A 2015 research study in BMJ journals stated that some of these applications often have a lack of evidence, scientific credibility and limited effectiveness. Yet, the majority of the population seem to be turning to digital interventions, but, should they be trusted?

With caution. There are a number of pros and cons to consider before using an application which claims to support your mental health.

There are benefits to using apps, especially alongside therapy or prescribed medication. The most significant, being convenience. When you are using the techniques on your mobile, they are available any time anywhere. This is ideal for those who may have some trouble with face to face  appointments.. Another benefit of using mental health applications is anonymity. People can seek support without involving others. Furthermore, digital therapeutic techniques can be accessed by more people, in a shorter period of time, compared to face to face therapy and it may also be more cost-effective. The use of technology in an attempt to tackle mental health concerns can also be a first step for those who have not yet received any mental health treatment, allowing a better understanding in what to expect.

The biggest concern  with digital interventions is whether they are effective or not. . In 2013, there were over 1,500 apps claiming to improve your mental health, however only 32 of those had any published research. To put that in perspective, that is 2% of apps for mental health, that have any clinical research to back their claims. Given the lack of relevant peer-reviewed studies behind them, the claims from many app developers that their app can ‘cure’ a variety of mental health conditions may not be trustworthy.. Another concern is whether the same app can be effective for a variety of people with different needs and experiencing different conditions. Privacy can also an issue. Mental health apps tend to deal with sensitive data so app developers need to ensure confidentiality and privacy. Finally some app developers may exaggerate recovery rates or make false promises, which can turn people away from all apps as it is difficult to decide who to trust as a consumer.

In 2017, the NHS launched an app library to help people make better decisions about the digital tools they use. As stated on their website, “the library will have a small selection of tools to ensure they meet the high standard of quality, safety and effectiveness people expect from the NHS.” This means that the apps mentioned on the NHS app library are more likely to be backed up by clinical research and proven to be beneficial to the user. Other than being listed on the NHS approved apps, there are a couple of other things which should be looked into before using technology to help manage a mental health condition.  

  • Research the app developer, see if they have any prior credentials or experience within the field of mental health. The more experience, the better. It makes it more likely the app has reliable therapeutic techniques included.

  • If there is no information about a particular app, check to see if it is based on a treatment that has been proven beneficial. For example, research has shown that Internet-based cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is as effective as conventional CBT for disorders that respond well to CBT, like depression and anxiety.

  • Read the privacy policy and End User License Agreement carefully to make sure the developer is not going to make money by selling your data to advertisers or others.

  • Make sure your data is held securely and that it is encrypted. The developer should state these things on their website or the description of the app.

There are a few apps which follow the relevant guidelines and have shown benefits towards improvement of mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety and mild-depression. Our own award-winning Thrive: Feel Stress Free has been recently approved by the NHS. To achieve this, we have observed all the guidelines and previous research into how to create an effective self-management tool. We continue to do research to improve our intervention and we take your data privacy very seriously. You can find our previous peer reviewed research here.

Mental health apps can be beneficial, especially when used alongside typical treatment and before the condition has become severe. However it is essential to find reliable tools, rather than believing the thousands of apps on the app-store can ‘cure’ your mental health condition.

Sam GlassComment