- Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH
A wide variety of mental health apps are currently available. Two recent studies describe the appeal of these apps yet also advise caution with their use, as some of them may reinforce harmful messages and/or are not based on evidence-based practice. Helping our patients identify reputable apps is becoming an important element of mental health management.
The first study, from the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, evaluated the content of 61 mental health apps. The researchers found that many of these apps framed mental health problems as "exist[ing] for everybody" and claimed "their product could help quickly and easy." 49% of the apps provided disclaimers, "thus, app consumers were assigned responsibility not only for using an app, but also for knowing whether it was appropriate for them." Visual images in the apps were predominantly of white individuals, and comments in many apps suggested that app users were expected to be employed and/or have families, which the authors criticized as being non-inclusive. While 61% of apps included claims that their methods were scientifically-based, none cited studies or evidence to support these claims. Although the researchers identified a few reasonably reputable apps, they advise physicians to ask patients with mental health diagnoses about app use and review the above limitations with them.
The second study from June of this year aimed to formally analyze apps which claimed to be following cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tenets. They reviewed 31 apps which advertised CBT for depressive symptoms and found that, while user ratings of these apps tended to be quite high, only some of their features were based on CBT. 12 apps only provided 1 feature consistent with CBT; another 9 apps only included 2. They found that CBT features tended to be limited to mood tracking, recording thoughts, and dealing with negative thoughts, and they expressed concern that other CBT elements, such as addressing core beliefs, were absent. "Even though all of their descriptions mentioned CBT, only half of all features provided by apps reflected core competencies of CBT." The authors also analyzed the rating comments of these apps and found that many users appreciated their relative affordability compared to traditional therapy. Some raters describing themselves as therapists stated that they appreciated the use of these apps as adjuncts to their meetings with patients.
Many patients like using apps; many physicians and counselors like being able to recommend useful tools to patients. The challenge for patients and physicians alike is to identify apps that incorporate the best evidence-based practice into their design. Thankfully, FPM has its regular feature "SPPACES: Medical App Reviews" to help guide our decisions. (SPPACES = Source or developer, Platforms available, Pertinence to primary care, Authoritativeness/accuracy, Cost, Ease of use, and Sponsor.) Earlier this year, a SPPACES article identified "Five Mobile Apps to Help Patients with Anxiety and Depression." All five of these apps were developed by reputable experts, and a couple of them were even mentioned in the above studies as being exemplars of evidence-based practice (MoodTools and What's Up-Mental Health App).
Discussing app use with patients and guiding patients to reputable apps is, of course, only one part of good mental health care. You can read more in the AFP By Topic on Depression and Bipolar Disorder and in the AFP By Topic on Anxiety Disorders.