We live in a time where there is a stronger and certainly more vocal emphasis on mental health than we’ve ever seen before. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as for too long issues of mental health have not been treated with the same priority as physical health. Indeed, the widespread rates of depression and anxiety we see in modern society need to be brought out of the darkness and de-stigmatized.
However, this uptick in mental health awareness doesn’t come without its challenges. In response to this more open attitude toward seeking help for mental health issues, therapists and practitioners have seen unprecedented demand they are struggling to meet. According to data in Wired, in the UK “referrals to community mental health teams and crisis services have increased by 15%, despite a loss of around 200 full time mental health doctors and 3600 nurses.”
The obvious answer to meeting this increased demand with decreased resources in the digital era is to provide mental health services via mobile technology. Britain’s NHS has endorsed these efforts and offers several digital options to those seeking guidance. We have also seen various apps and other companies founded globally. But the question remains: what do we know about the applications of digital technology for such a personalised and serious issue? While apps can certainly expand mental health support to more people at lower cost, it’s worth asking if it has the same efficacy in digital form as in traditional forms like talk therapy and group counselling.
Some of the research is not particularly comforting. According to research done by a team at the University of Liverpool and published in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health, “mental health apps and online programmes lack ‘an underlying evidence base, a lack of scientific credibility and limited clinical effectiveness.
The study also suggests that many mental health apps can lead to over-reliance and anxiety around self-diagnosis.”
However it’s important to note that not all apps are created equal. There are some mental health apps that have proved effective in a clinical setting, which include four apps approved by the NHS—Big White Wall, Moodscope, Happyhealthy and WorkGuru—as well as a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based app Sleepio and Wizard.
According to The Guardian, Sleepio was offered via Manchester’s Self Help service and saw successful results after a real-world trial. “The app assesses users’ worries, sleep schedules, lifestyle and bedrooms, before teaching them CBT techniques. Through improving their sleep, the 98 participants saw a 68% recovery rate from anxiety and depression symptoms, compared with an NHS average of 45%.”
There is an argument that while mental health apps may not be able to fully supplant in-person therapy or group counselling, they can serve as a vital stop-gap measure in periods where the mental health system is overrun with requests.
Simon Leigh, who co-authored the aforementioned study, told Wired, “Apps that actually are good can play a really great role in terms of waiting lists. They can act as a triage for less serious mental health problems and can be the perfect remedy in some cases. Apps can be beneficial, but we need to ensure that with wider usage we also invest in further research to ensure that they’re robust.”
Mental health is not as easy as simply taking a pill or getting a vaccine—when it comes to changing how one’s mind works, there are no quick fixes. As much as an app will tell you that you only need to log in for ten minutes a day, the reality is probably more complicated than that. Users should be critical about the apps that they are entrusting with their mental health, and try wherever possible to rely only on versions that have a clinical basis.
Leigh offered another helpful piece of advice: “If you go to the website of an app you’re thinking of downloading and there’s contact details for a mental health practitioner, it’s one indication that the app is going to be clinically viable.”