We Can’t Rely On Mental Health Apps…Yet

There’s a real need for easy-to-access treatment options, but for now, experts are skeptical

Magdalena Puniewska
Elemental
Published in
7 min readSep 30, 2019

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Illustration: smartboy10/Getty

LLast summer, Chanel Omari, 34, couldn’t fit therapy in her schedule. She was frequently out of town for work, while also working on a podcast, and it was seemingly impossible to make time for regular check-ins. But she was diagnosed with mild depression and anxiety and needed help managing her mental health, so she downloaded two apps: one called Calm, which would teach her meditation, and another called 7 Cups, which would connect her with mental health professionals or trained “listeners” (volunteers who are not necessarily certified therapists) who could offer support over text messages.

“At first I felt better,” she says. “It was the beginning of a new journey and it seemed like a new approach. Most importantly it was convenient and cost-effective. Therapy was costing me an arm and a leg.”

But soon the app approach would leave her confused. Omari downloaded an app to track her daily emotions, and it suggested she had a mood disorder after she used it for a week. “I was like, okay, if that’s what it is, I am going to embrace it and work on it,” she says. But when she shared her new “diagnosis” with a psychiatrist and therapist, they both found it to be untrue after independently evaluating her.

“I think what’s most concerning is that at first glance these apps appear okay, and then you read what they’re telling you to do, or the recommendations they are giving, and you realize that they’re incorrect.”

Pick a mental health condition and there’s most likely a corresponding app, including guides for managing depression, anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Some claim to give users mental health assessments, while others help in smaller ways, like offering tips for combatting negative thoughts. An app for anxiety might teach deep breathing, while one for bipolar disorder may ask the user to track moods throughout the day.

These digital tools are marketed as a viable alternative to seeing someone in person, and a convenient solution for people…

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