More than ever, people struggling with mental health issues are turning to therapy apps. While some applications connect you with a licensed therapist, many apps have gone humanless - from friendly chatbots that offer cognitive behavioural therapy to apps that claim to help people through acute stress with deep breathing exercises.
While studies suggest that some of these applications are effective treatments for mental illness, experts are concerned with the rapid growth of unregulated apps.
Since 2016, mental health apps have exploded in number and popularity. Currently, there are about 10,000 to 20,000 mental health apps available. Studies also show that, overall, smartphone apps helped people feel moderately less depressed and anxious.
But, many mental health apps make unsubstantiated treatment claims. Because the risks associated with using the apps are small, no one seems to be checking the validity of their claims.
In a review of 52 apps for anxiety, psychologists found that 67% had been developed without guidance from a healthcare professional. Another review found that none of the 25 highest-rated apps for anxiety had content in line with evidence-based treatments.
Some of the advice offered by the apps are harmful. One app for bipolar disorder advised users that experienced a manic episode to take a shot of hard liquor to help them fall asleep. Another app said you could "catch" bipolar disorder.
It's unlikely that these mHealth apps will replace in-person healthcare professionals. While regulation would eliminate most health apps, that is not likely to happen soon.
When choosing apps, users should go to a medical professional and see what they would recommend. The professional can see if the app is consistent with evidence-based treatments.
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