By Kayt Sukel
Imagine a world where mental health assistance is only a click away.
It may sound a bit like something out of a science fiction movie, but the IMS Institute reports there are already more than 165,000 mobile health apps available to consumers. And a significant portion of those apps support mental health and behavioral disorders like depression and bipolar disorder.
So what is a mental health app, exactly? Put simply, it’s an application that can be downloaded to your favorite mobile device that may help you better cope with a mental health condition. Some of these apps allow users to instantly connect with trained mental health professionals or support groups when needed. Some provide helpful mindfulness techniques. And still others collect valuable data about nutrition, heart rate, speech patterns, exercise rates and stress levels that can help detect potential issues in mood and behavior, reporting data to clinicians and suggesting interventions before any serious problems arise.
Given the significant costs associated with mental health conditions and the shortage of mental health care providers in the U.S. and elsewhere, many clinicians believe that mental health apps can help fill an important need.
“There’s no doubt that these apps have a tremendous amount of potential. We know that more and more people have smartphones and are interested in using these apps,” says Peter Yellowlees, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California at Davis. “And, certainly, the right app could help patients better manage their conditions and give clinicians important and more accurate data to help them really understand what’s going on with their patients as they go about their daily lives. It really could be invaluable—if we can work out which apps are clinically valid.”
The problem, however, is that research to test clinical validity is lacking—and many of the tens of thousands of mental health apps you can currently find in the app store haven’t been thoroughly tested.
“Many of these apps have been developed by people who have great ideas and want to create something helpful, but they just haven’t been properly tested,” says Yellowlees. “Many of the apps you see available right now probably won’t be around within a year.”
So how can someone who is considering using a mental health app separate the wheat from the chaff? To start, talk to your psychiatrist or mental health provider. Some healthcare organizations have their own apps, and some clinicians have favorite apps they have vetted and like to recommend.
And despite the challenges, Yellowlees says mental health apps are here—and they are here to stay. While the research on clinical validity of mental health apps as a whole has lagged to date, he is confident that it will soon catch up so patients and clinicians can comfortably use properly vetted apps.
“The reality is that we’re ready for good mental health apps. Patients are ready to use them and are already starting to use them,” he says. “So the issue for doctors is that we need to make sure that the apps that are being used are safe and effective. So it’s important that the research is done so we can do so.”
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