‘Mental health apps have gaps in information’

Only a third encourage users to seek professional help, says NIMHANS study

January 13, 2019 10:24 am | Updated 10:24 am IST - Bengaluru

Mental health and well-being, often the subject of self-help books, is now the focus of apps by entrepreneurs identifying a need for them among teenagers and young working professionals. Apps, some of them available for a subscription fee, promise to address mental health issues ranging from anxiety to depression. But how effective are they?

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) reviewed 278 free apps for depression to find that only a little over a third included content aimed at encouraging users to seek professional help.

This was one of the findings of the study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry.

Seema Mehrotra, Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, the corresponding author for the article, said, “Apps often fail to provide information when a higher level or intensity of intervention is needed. They are not focussed sufficiently on breaking mental barriers to seeking professional help nor offer ways to deal with psychological crises.”

Many apps offer online consultation, a social network for dealing with stressful situations, screening tests, different forms of meditation, audio and visual aids, with a focus on meditation and relaxation.

The two most popular types of apps provided information on coping with depression and framed standalone screening tools. However, less than 10% of the apps studied had incorporated explicit delineation of their scope, and only 12% of the reviewed apps guided users on managing a ‘suicidal crisis’.

The study aimed to examine the apps on parameters such as advice to users on the choice of app; inclusion of elements that encourage professional help-seeking; guidance for managing psychological crises; and the range of therapeutic strategies incorporated.

The authors state in their review article, “Monitoring moods, thoughts and behaviours were the commonest therapeutic strategies incorporated in the apps, in addition to a wide range of other strategies, such as behavioural activation, identifying and correcting cognitive errors, mindfulness exercises, cultivation of gratitude, and medication management.”

The researchers point out that a privacy statement, provided in only around 40% of the interactive apps reviewed, is essential — sensitive and confidential information may be given away by users who aren't fully aware of their potential implications or how the data can be misused.

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