Mental health apps come in a few flavors. Some are put together by mental health organizations. They don’t tend to be flashy, but they’re designed to complement the rest of your therapeutic regimen. Others are pure entertainment and make no claims otherwise, giving you little self-care or productivity nudges that would make anyone’s life a little easier regardless of any mental health issues.
Increasingly, though, there’s a third sort: the commercial kind. The innovative, disruptive, San-Francisco-startup kind. They make lofty claims about rewiring your brain or expanding your capabilities, and they rarely have much of anything to back it up. Those apps are currently being investigated by an American Psychiatric Association task force.
Fast Company spoke with John Torous, chair of the task force and a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He’s skeptical about both the motives behind and efficacy of commercial mental health apps.
What are the questions we should be asking of these app makers?
“A lot of them have kept a black box around what they’re doing. They have trade secrets. But they haven’t asked basic questions such as, ‘Is this scientific?’ ‘Does it work?’ Researchers identified more than 700 mindfulness apps in the iTunes store but found that only 23 actually provided mindfulness training or education, and only one was supported by empirical evidence.
“I try to read the terms and conditions when researching these apps. Many of these apps use mental health terminology, such as referring to themselves as ‘CBT based,’ but they hide in their terms and services that they’re not actually offering a mental health service. That might even open them up to some liability later down the line.”
Torous also shares a few words of caution about the privacy policies of mental health apps. When you speak with a therapist, you know that everything you share will be kept confidential. When you share your concerns with an app, there may be nothing stopping its makers from selling them to the top bidder.
This isn’t to say that you should delete your mental health apps, particularly if you find them helpful. It’s just a valuable reminder to be an informed consumer. Pay attention to the research that goes into the apps you use. Read their privacy policies. Don’t rely on them in place of traditional therapy.
Take them with a healthy dose of skepticism, and you should be just fine.