Research has found the majority of mental health apps are based on flimsy science, if any at all.
A wide range of mental health apps are now available on mobile phones that purport to help people achieve balance and increase happiness, among other things.
However, a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research has questioned their effectiveness.
Madhavan Mani, a PhD student at QUT’s School of Psychology and Counselling, found there are more than 700 “mindfulness” apps available, but just 23 of them met the basic rating scale to even be reviewed.
“Anyone can develop apps these days,” he said.
“So when you find an app in the store, it need not necessarily have any science behind it, and that’s an issue with the apps actually.”
Mr Mani found many of the so-called mindfulness apps were actually guided meditations, timers, or reminders.
A psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, John Torous, has also evaluated mental health technology.
He compared the majority of the apps available to “digital snake oil”.
“I think there’s thousands of these apps out there, and it’s very hard from looking at them to know, is this going to be helpful or is it actually going to be harmful?
“Is it something that’s really just a ploy to collect your personal and very sensitive mental health data?”
He said people may download the apps because it can be hard to gain access to professional help.
Calls for ‘authentication process’
Associate Professor Leanne Hides, from the Queensland University of Technology, is working on the development of e-tools for young people with mental illness.
“The evidence base for mobile apps at the moment is poor at best,” she said.
“Few have been evaluated in clinical trials, so quite a few are quite poor quality.
“It is concerning, particularly some of the promises some of the apps are making.
“So we came across one that said it was the answer to happiness – so, not a valid claim.”
The Black Dog Institute’s director and chief scientist, Helen Christensen, is calling for a regulatory body, similar to Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“We can do exactly the same thing with apps and websites,” Ms Christensen said.
“They go through some sort of authentication process and validation, and if they meet certain criteria, then they are found acceptable for dissemination, then there is funding that goes back to the person to be able to access them.”
The online youth mental health service ReachOut recommends a number of science-based mental health apps on its website, as does the Australian National University-run website, Beacon.
ReachOut’s apps Breathe and Worry Time have been downloaded more than 30,000 times.
“There is very strong evidence that online tools – whether that be a mobile phone or a desktop – that are based on evidence are effective at improving people’s mental health,” the CEO of Reachout Australia, Jono Nicholas, said.
“What we need to do is make sure that people who are accessing a specific tool – maybe downloading something from an app store – that it does come from a reputable provider that is building the tool around evidence.”
But Professor Christensen said even reputable apps cannot replace professional help.
“An app by itself is very rarely going to be the full answer, but the technology that apps bring about is extremely powerful.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 25 February 2016.