Experts Offer Tips for Navigating Mental Health Apps for Youth
Mobile apps for mental health and wellness have changed the way that people—particularly youth—track and care for their mental health. With more than 10,000 mental health–related apps on the market today, how can mental health professionals help youth navigate their options and decide what usage, if any, is appropriate?
In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Stephen M. Schueller, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues discuss the use of mental health apps by youth and offer recommendations for actions that health professionals can take to support youth using or interested in mental health apps. These apps, they suggest, have the potential to support youth mental health and to expand access to youth with mental health concerns who do not access formal treatment. For youth in treatment, potential beneficial uses of the apps include reinforcing concepts learned in therapy, providing opportunities to learn and practice evidence-based skills, and offering “support to youth during the many hours of their lives that they are not in therapy.”
But mental health apps also come with risks, just as there are risks to medications and other treatments. For example, some apps collect and store the user’s mental health information, which could become compromised in the event of a data breach; others may include content that can cause unintended harm. In addition, many popular mental health apps do not have research directly supporting their effectiveness. However, “they often include elements of empirically supported treatments for children and adolescents,” Schueller and colleagues note.
Another potential concern, assuming an app is safe, effective and beneficial, is the motivation to stick with it. An estimated 90% of people who download a mental health app will stop using it within 30 days. While many people may just not follow through on intentions to use the app, others, the authors note, may find the app not useful and stop, or may find they’ve gotten what they wanted out of it and moved on.
Given the potential benefits and challenges with mental health apps, Schueller and colleagues suggest mental health professionals can help youth in several ways.
- Explore their reasons for using an app.
- Help them decide whether to use a mental health app.
- Identify content in the app that is most likely to help them.
- Learn how to get the most out of any app they decide to use.
- Help youth stay motivated to use it.
- Understand and minimize potential risks.
Resources When Considering Mental Health Apps
APA’s App Advisor offers some questions to consider if you are looking at mental health apps.
- Has the app been updated in the last 180 days?
- Does the app collect, use, and/or transmit sensitive data? If yes, does it claim to do so securely?
- Is there evidence of specific benefits from academic research or end-user feedback?
- Does the app seem easy to use?
- Can data be easily shared and interpreted in a way that's consistent with the stated purpose of the app?
Learn more about APA’s App Advisor and App Evaluation Model
The Mobile Health Index and Navigation Database (MIND) provides information on apps according to different aspects such as cost, features, privacy, supported conditions, and treatment approaches. For example, you can easily search for only free apps or those that offer mindfulness support or other features. Tracking, journaling, mindfulness, and psychoeducation are among the most common app features. Learn more.
This blog was adapted from the Dec. 20, 2023 Psych News Alert: Tips for Doctors Working With Kids, Teens Using Mental Health Apps.
- Schueller, S. M., et al.. (2023). Mental Health Apps for Children and Adolescents: A Clinician-Friendly Review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, S0890-8567(23)02251-7. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2023.07.1004
- Baumel A, et al. Objective user engagement with mental health apps: systematic search and panel-based usage analysis. Journal of medical Internet research. 2019; 21(9), e14567. https://doi.org/10.2196/14567