Mental health apps might not be as effective as they claim

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Many mental health apps may overstate their effectiveness, according to new research.

Research published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Digital Medicine examined 73 top-ranking mental health apps found by searching the iTunes and Google Play stores for apps related to anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, self-harm and substance use.

“You’re kind of taking a leap of faith by using some of these things,” John Torous, a co-author of the study and a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told MarketWatch.

The study found that 64 percent of the apps made claims of effectiveness at mental health diagnosis or improvements in mood, symptoms or self-management and 44 percent used scientific language to back up those claims.

However, only 53 percent of the scientific methods outlined were linked to evidence found in academic literature.

“Scientific language was the most frequently invoked form of support for use of mental health apps; however, high-quality evidence is not commonly described,” the study authors wrote.

In fact, the “best evidence” offered by these apps came from the two apps that “described direct evidence associated with the app” and one app that “provided citation details to scientific literature,” they added.

When people turn to mental health treatments that aren’t evidence-based or proven to be effective, Torous said it’s possible they aren’t receiving the care they should be receiving, or that they’re getting incorrect information from an app.

“Evolving privacy concerns” about how their data is being shared or exposed also remain a chief risk, he said.

“You’re kind of relying on these digital health tools that we know very little about and are often made of good intentions, but reflect someone else’s experience of mental health,” Torous said.

“In essence, you’re becoming an inadvertent research subject,” he said. “You’re taking on the risk of trying this treatment intervention.”

“There is the potential that apps could have the opposite effect of what they’re intended to do,” said Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association, who was not involved in the present study.

“They could make your symptoms increase. They could, in general, make you feel worse about yourself.”

Previous research has shone a skeptical light on the expansive catalog of mental health apps. For example, an analysis of 700 mindfulness-based apps found that just 4 percent “provided mindfulness training and education,” and another study of bipolar disorder apps found that their content was generally “not in line with practice guidelines or established self-management principles.”

A 2018 review of mobile mental health apps found that a “majority of the apps that are currently available lack clinically validated evidence of their efficacy.”

Torous spoke highly of the Department of Veteran Affairs’ array of health apps, which includes apps for mood boosting and PTSD coping and Intellicare, a Northwestern University app suite that’s part of a National Institutes of Health-funded research study. (He has no affiliation with either program.)

It’s hard to compile a static list of mental health apps people should use because of the “dynamic landscape” at play, Torous said. New research on the topic comes at a steady pace, while the apps themselves continue to change, he added.

“What we can do,” he said, “is give people a framework to make informed decisions.”

Here are some guidelines:

Look for the privacy policy

Even checking for the existence of a privacy policy “can actually eliminate a lot of bad apps very, very quickly,” Torous said. “If you can’t find it, that’s a pretty big red flag.” Find out how the app might collect, store and share your data, Wright said. You’ll typically find this information on the app’s website or user agreement, so read them carefully.

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