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Mental Health Apps: Cautions for College Students

     

There are a slew  of mobile apps available that are designed to promote mental wellness and target mental health conditions. Apps are available to help monitor or track symptoms, offer relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and deliver a secondary treatment in combination with a primary treatment.

Use of the most popular mental health apps has increased continually in recent years and that trend continued during the pandemic, according to recent report from app tracker Apptopia. U.S. users of the top 15 mental wellness apps logged more than 600 million sessions in May. 

Among those users are college students. In addition to counseling, peer support and other services to support the mental wellness of students, many college counseling centers are recommending mental health apps to help support stressed-out students and meet the growing demand for campus mental health services. A new study in Psychiatric Services takes a critical look at those app recommendations. 

The researchers with Harvard Medical School looked at app recommendations from 26 college counseling centers and assessed app features such as the date of last update, privacy policy, and whether any published research supporting the app function.

The authors conclude that many counseling centers are recommending apps that are inaccessible, outdated, potentially dangerous, and without research backing.  Of the 218 unique apps recommended by the schools, 28% were no longer available for download.  Of the available apps, only 39% had privacy policies and more than half (56%) had not been updated in the past six months.  Among those with privacy policies, almost half (49%) shared user data with third parties. The authors found published research on effectiveness for only 16% of the existing apps.

The authors suggest that counseling centers develop an app review process with input from clinicians and students; or employ a digital navigator (someone to select apps and help connect students to the appropriate app); or use the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) app evaluation framework.

APA recently launched the App Advisor which is designed to help mental health professionals and their patients make informed decisions about whether to use an app. The process involves asking the right questions and looking for the right information to make better choices. The App Advisor is not intended to provide a recommendation, endorsement, or criticism of any particular app, but rather serves as a tool for people evaluate any app they might be considering.

The App Advisor process includes a series of questions to assess five different aspects of apps, including

  1. Access and background
  2. Privacy and security
  3. Clinical foundation
  4. Usability
  5. Data integration towards therapeutic goals

Given the large number of mental health apps available and little or no oversight or regulation, the App Advisor provides process raises important considerations and provides a tool to help better inform choices.  

Reference

Melcher, J., Torous, J. Smartphone Apps for College Mental Health: A Concern for Privacy and Quality of Current Offerings. Psychiatric Services. Published online Aug. 2020.

     

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