Technology could be changing mental health care for the better.
In this age, there’s an app to address every need; if you’ve got a smartphone, you can get a ride, find an obscure restaurant, have an on-the-go translator, or quickly find the name of every actor on Baywatch.
It makes sense, then,
Those apps could prove invaluable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year. Unfortunately, for one reason
The National Institute of Mental Health lists a number of pros and cons when it comes to using mental health apps. On the plus side, the apps are convenient, consistent, anonymous, inexpensive, and available 24 hours a day. However, some of these apps can be impersonal and unregulated, and user privacy is not entirely guaranteed.
The medical community is far from reaching a consensus when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of these apps, but one thing is certainly clear: Much more clinical research is needed before we put the same level of trust in our handheld phones as we do in the hands of medical professionals.
With that said, some app developers are coming up with brilliant methods of promoting mental health treatment, and that’s certainly a good thing.
Here’s what’s available for typical users.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are a few noticeable trends in the development of mental health apps.
Self-Management Apps: These apps rely on data from the user to work.
The more you use these apps, the creators claim, the more accurate the feedback. This should, in theory, help you get better results and notice trends.
Thinking Skill Apps: These apps are designed to help the user with cognitive training and improve their thinking skills. This type of programming is often directed at individuals with brain injuries or those who are experiencing diminishing mental performance.
CogSMART, according to the company’s website, offers “a form of cognitive training to help people improve their skills in prospective memory (remembering to do things), attention, learning/memory, and executive functioning (problem-solving, planning, organization, and cognitive flexibility).”
This organization is in the process of beta-testing a new app that is designed to be used in partnership with a licensed clinician.
“Our hope is that improving these abilities will help people with cognitive symptoms or impairments perform better in their everyday activities and reach their goals.”
Skill-Training Apps: “Skill-training apps may feel more like games than other mental health apps as they help users learn new coping or thinking skills,” explains the NIMH.
For instance, the Pacifica app features “psychologist-designed paths” that include audio lessons, relaxation techniques, and other activities designed to help users grow at their own pace.
This app (and its peers) also features a section that allows users to set and monitor daily challenges while identifying negative thoughts that may keep them from accomplishing their goals. Pacifica also offers peer support and lets users monitor their progress.
Some apps also provide illness management and supported care.
NYU’s Dr. Atlas is particularly worried that people will turn to apps as an alternative to human contact. Some apps, however, are designed to facilitate human interaction.
Talkspace is one app that matches users with a trained therapist.
“As a Talkspace member,” the app’s iTunes description reads, “you will have access to your private counselor and secure chat room where you can discuss your life, ask questions and raise troubling issues. Your Talkspace therapist will check in with you based on your agreement with them (usually 1-2 times a day).”
The NIMH notes that questions still remain when it comes to determining “how much human interaction people need for app-based treatments to be effective.”
Some human interaction is surely better than none, but the clear takeaway is that these types of apps aren’t a complete solution.
Wearables could even allow for passive symptom tracking.
With the development of technology like smart watches, it’s becoming easier for digital devices to measure what’s going on inside of your body.
Some apps prompt you to enter information as they monitor other data, like your location, heart rate, and in some cases, even your vocal patterns. With enough input, these apps can help users get ahead of the symptoms of their mental illness.
The Mindset app, for example, uses skill-training tools like those offered by Pacifica, but the app also monitors your passive symptoms.
Mindset claims to “track your progress, and learn when you’re stressed out and the locations that trigger you, to create custom tips that steer you toward optimal mind management so you can become your best self.”
Want to enroll in a clinical trial? There’s an app for that.
Technology is changing rapidly and the medical community is doing all it can to keep up with the changes in the digital landscape. If you’re curious about trying out a smartphone app to manage a mental health challenge, you can enroll as a participant in a clinical trial to help scientists develop standards and best-practices in this evolving field.
ClinicalTrials.gov is a service of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. By searching for “mental health, apps” you can see if there are any opportunities to both improve your mental health with an app and help the scientific community.
Is a mental health app right for you?
Hopefully, we’ve made it abundantly clear that no app is a substitute for the care of a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. If you believe that you have serious symptoms, seek treatment from a qualified professional.
However, if you are looking for an app to help supplement your human-based treatment and care, the NIMH has a few suggestions:
Ask your healthcare provider for a recommendation. They may be participating in a trial or offering services similar to what you would find in an app.
Research app developers. As the NIMH notes, “Can you find helpful information about his or her credentials and experience?”
Beware of misleading logos. The NIMH warns that while some apps may bear the organization’s official logo, the NIMH “has not developed and does not endorse any apps.”
See if the apps are based on tested science. “For example,” writes the NIMH, “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, anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder.”
Finally, if you find an app that looks good, give it a try.
“Decide if it’s easy to use, holds your attention, and if you want to continue using it,” the NIMH suggests. “An app is only effective if keeps users engaged for weeks or months.”
Working to better understand, manage, and live with mental illness is a struggle. An app on your smartphone almost definitely won’t cure your illness, but talking with friends and medical professionals and proactively engaging with technology isn’t going to do you any harm, provided that you research the apps carefully.