Are mental health apps actually effective?

Despite their claims of treating mental illness, a new study found that these apps are ineffective

A new study found that mental health apps do not live up to their claims of treating mental health disorders. Many app users and psychologists agree that mental health apps are not effective as a sole treatment method.

 The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and led by Dr. Simon B. Goldberg, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology, “failed to find convincing evidence” that mental health smartphone apps effectively treat symptoms of mental illness. 

The research was a meta-analysis of existing studies: of 145 controlled trials, researchers attempted to find an overall consensus on the actual efficacy of mental health apps, ultimately discovering contradictory and inconsistent results.

Apps based on cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, and smoking cessation that were designed to treat all types of mental health disorders were included in the studies researched. 

 The Concordian spoke with Casey Dillon, a communications director that has first-hand experience with mental health apps. Dillon has struggled with anxiety and depression for over 15 years, and she downloaded the CBT Thought Diary app after her therapist recommended it. 

Although skeptical and resistant at first, Dillon began using the app with the hopes of finding a new and more effective stress management tool. 

 “I’ve tried different medications, I’ve tried different therapists, I’ve tried paper journals and mood trackers,” Dillon said. “I’m always looking for something that works.”

Dillon used the app consistently for approximately one month, but her interest in the app slowly started to fade as time progressed. After another six months of occasional use, Dillon deleted the app. “It’s hard to stay consistent and have the time to write out your feelings every day,” Dillon said.  

 The CBT Thought Diary app encourages users to identify their emotions and type out their feelings throughout the day. The app’s concept, which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, was helpful for Dillon to a certain degree. 

“Seeing your thoughts and your feelings in writing almost minimizes your problem. Now I can see it and think about it more objectively,” she said. “But at the same time, I spent more time thinking about what was upsetting me, which made me more upset.”

  Psychotherapist and counsellor Caroline Crotty acknowledged that cognitive behavioural therapy apps “may reinforce negative outlooks or viewpoints.” 

Crotty said therapists are important in intervening and assuring their clients are on the right track, something an app doesn’t do adequately. “There’s no one to challenge them about their feelings and saying hang on a second, you need to re-think that,” she added.

 After trying multiple mental health apps, Dillon concluded that apps could not replace therapy and the human connections that come with it. 

“Once you find a therapist you are compatible with, there’s nothing like a neutral person I can talk and vent to,” Dillon said. “I think these apps are a great supplement, but not more than that.”

 Crotty said that “apps work very well alongside talking therapies.” Crotty said she recommends the apps because they are easy to use and accessible. 

“You don’t have to leave home, you don’t have to worry about commuting or parking difficulties, there is no traffic, and unlike a therapist, it is there whenever you need it,” Crotty said. 

She adds that therapists aren’t with their clients every day, which is where the app becomes helpful, “I definitely recommend them to people. I think they are a brilliant way of keeping track of day-to-day feelings and emotions.”

 Although the study did not find “convincing evidence” of apps treating mental health disorders, mental health apps can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and smoking/drinking. Despite the improvement of symptoms, the study notes that mental health apps rarely outperform traditional treatment methods. 

 Crotty said she believes mental health apps will become more effective as they evolve. According to Crotty, software developers are working on integrating artificial intelligence into the apps. 

“The human touch will always be important, but I do think apps will play an absolutely huge role in the provision of healthcare and emotional support going forward,” Crotty said.


Photo by: Cassidy Dora

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