Analysis: Mental health apps overdiagnose, steer toward self-help

By Laura Lovett
12:09 pm

While the use of mental health apps has been on the rise, researchers of a recent analysis published by the Annals of Family Medicine, which is broadly critical of these platforms, worry that these apps could lead to unnecessary diagnoses and misinformation about mental illness. 

“Mental health apps may promote medicalization of normal mental states and imply individual responsibility for mental well-being,” the authors of the study wrote. “Within the healthcare clinician-patient relationship, such messages should be challenged, where appropriate, to prevent overdiagnosis and ensure supportive healthcare where needed.”

Researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia decided to look at apps from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. The researchers narrowed down the analysis to 61 mental health apps by choosing platforms that specifically reference mental health diagnoses or symptoms, and offer diagnosis and guidance or make health claims, according to the study. Out of the 61 apps selected, 34 of the apps addressed panic and stress, 16 targeted mood disorders, and 11 focused on wellbeing and other psychological symptoms. 

Researchers then looked at key themes and app messaging. 

“We identified two dominant messages about mental health: one, poor or fragile mental health is ubiquitous; and two, individuals can easily manage their own mental health problems with apps. Developers offered very limited scientific evidence for the apps’ claimed benefits,” authors of the study wrote. 

For the most part, the apps focused on one of three approaches to help including calming mechanisms, cognitive therapies, and self-monitoring tools. Authors also found that 61 percent of the apps “claimed vague scientific authority” for their product.  

The researchers noted that the apps could lead to overdiagnosing mental illness and preventing individuals who need help from reaching out. 

"The idea that the normal ups and downs of everyday life need treatment could drive use of these apps by people with minor concerns. These users are unlikely to get any significant benefits but may receive large time burdens and potential loss of privacy. It might be useful for these people to hear alternative views about what constitutes normal psychological experiences in order to prevent overdiagnosis.” Dr. Lisa Parker, lead author of the study and post-doctoral research associate with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and School of Pharmacy, said in a statement. "At the same time, people who have severe mental health issues may be helped by [general practitioners] or mental healthcare workers' discussions around the limitations of app use and the importance of seeking additional forms of supportive health care where needed."

The analysis also revealed that app makers have a heavy focus on white, employed individuals in a family, meaning that many others are not represented. Going forward, researchers advocated for conversations with clinicians instead of sole reliance on the apps. 

“We encourage healthcare professionals to ask patients about app use and initiate discussions about the messages we have highlighted in this study,” the authors of the study wrote. “Patients may benefit from hearing alternative views about what constitutes normal psychological experiences, with specific attention toward counteracting medicalization. Mental health apps may appear compelling, but the idea that we all need or should engage in frequent app use should not be taken too seriously.”


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