Digital Therapy? The Pros and Cons of Mental Health Apps

Over the past few years, advocacy for mental health issues has been on the rise, growing especially popular for Gen Z. More schools are dedicating days or weeks to mental health awareness, and more organizations are being increasingly inclusive for those who suffer from mental illnesses. As with anything that rises in popularity, people have been turning to how they can participate through technology. Enter the mental health app!

Mental health apps (MHAs) are digital tools a user can download on their device to improve their overall mental health and wellbeing. Some notable examples include Moodfit, MoodMission, Talkspace, and Shine. Not all apps use the same methods and techniques, and there are a wide variety of functions these apps deliver in the name of mental wellness. For those who have busy work lives, limited social lives, and not that much free time, MHAs seem to be the holy answer to getting a quick accessible tool for their mind in a hectic schedule. However, not many are quick to see the downsides of these apps, and aren’t aware of what these apps won’t provide you. Before you consider downloading ten different MHAs, read through these pros and cons so that you’re informed about what you’re getting yourself into. 

Person working on iphone Photo by Yura Fresh from Unsplash

Pros

  1. Accessibility A common benefit amongst having an app as a solution is the accessibility it brings to the problem. By having your help literally a couple swipes on the touchscreen away, you’re able to get access anywhere, at any time of the day. A more well-known alternative, like an in-person therapy appointment with a psychologist, is currently a less viable solution for those with minimal time and resources. If you’re a single mother working two jobs for your family to make ends meet, you probably wouldn’t be able to carve time out of your packed day for an appointment, if you even have the money left over to book one. 

  2. Anonymity There's definitely a lot more conversations surrounding mental health now than there was less than a decade ago. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of reducing all the stigmas that arise with discussing these openly. The fear of being publicly known among your friends and family that you’re seeing a therapist can often make others shut down  the idea of seeking help without a second thought, whether it’s because of embarrassment or risk of judgement. And although therapists have to keep your personal information private, it’s comforting for many to know that MHAs provide a way to access resources that don’t necessarily mean talking one-on-one with another person.

  3. Engagement MHAs can also actively encourage users to continually engage with the app and its services that in-person appointments and counselors cannot. An example of this kind of thinking is Duolingo. Duolingo is a language-learning app that promotes language study through posing “streaks” as something to maintain daily, and rewarding players when they learn new terms and grammar in a game-like system. Snapchat is another example -- users will often maintain friendships through Snapchat’s own “streak” system. MHAs also have other factors that make users more likely to engage with them rather than other solutions. For some users, the winning factor for them would be consistent notifications reminding them to use the app. For others, especially for younger users who grew up using smartphones, apps often feel more familiar than a human stranger, and therefore they’d probably be more engaged with digital solutions than professionals.

 

Person listening to music on laptop Photo by Steinar Engeland from Stocksnap

Cons

  1. Lack of Scientific Support Most users probably aren’t thinking too deeply about how much these apps will actually benefit you, but this issue is one of the biggest arguments against MHAs. A study done by the University of Liverpool shows that there’s a “frequent lack of an underlying evidence base, a lack of scientific credibility and subsequent limited clinical effectiveness…” with MHAs. This basically means that there’s a heavy lack of scientific evidence backing these apps up, so other than client testimonials and statistics collected by the app’s developers, which may be biased, users don’t really have a way of knowing whether the time they’re putting into the app can actually help them out.

  2. Risk of Self-Diagnosis A misconception that arises with MHAs is that users may believe that these apps are the one solution for their anxiety, their depression, etc. Many MHAs tend to tunnel vision on one condition instead of being a general wellness app. This can cause users to attempt googling their symptoms instead of consulting a professional in order to get “quick help” for their self-diagnosed condition. In reality, the user may have an entirely different problem then the one they think they're dealing with. Also, if they’re actually suffering from multiple mental illnesses, they might incorrectly believe that the MHA they’re using would be suitable for all of them, when this actually isn’t the case. 

  3. Overpromises MHAs usually aren’t regulated and overlooked by the government or mental health professionals. The developers of the apps are free to do whatever they’d like for their goals, whether it’s genuinely to help those struggling with mental illness, or to be one of the most popular apps in the store. A common tactic developers may use for more downloads is to “promise” ambitious results for their users after a certain amount of time with the app, and to exaggerate data and reviews for that extra boost of ethos. When users don’t achieve the results they were expecting, instead of thinking that this was a fault of the developers’, they might believe that they themselves are doing something wrong. Users can also be potentially discouraged by their own belief that other mental health treatments won’t work for them either. 

Smartphones and digital media has brought a new world of advocacy, support, and resources surrounding mental health. While MHAs can finally give some people a chance at mental wellness, they can also be a curse disguised as a blessing. Before you include that app into your daily routine, be sure to read up on the app and seek out other options beforehand!