Mental Health Apps May Be Making Us Crazy

In our increasingly tech-dependent world, we have mobile health apps for everything from dieting, to exercise, to finding a doctor. Now, we also have apps that diagnose and help us treat mental health issues. But a recent study by the University of Sydney suggests that these apps may be amplifying problems that simply fall into the realm of day-to-day stress or unhappiness.

The study reviewed 61 apps and found that their marketing was often based on the notion that everyday anxiety should be seen as a mental health issue, and that these apps could help you work through your difficulties with no professional assistance. According to Lisa Parker, who led the study, the problem is that these apps negate the importance of social support.

One app, Pacifica, which is marketed as a daily tool to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression “based on cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation,” says in its fine print, (according to Lifehacker). “We give no representation or warranties about the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose [of our] advice.” This leaves the supposed patient in charge of their own diagnosis and treatment with no guarantees that any of it is accurate or appropriate.

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One of the problems Parker says is that not every issue is a mental health problem. Life consists of general anxiety, disappointment, and stress. If you, in fact, have a mental health issue, stress can trigger symptoms, such as a panic attack. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who experiences stress or anxiety has a mental illness.

Many of the apps implied that not being content or happy most of the time was a sign of mental health problems. Others equated mental health issues with not having success in certain areas of your life, like work or relationships. None of these are indicators of mental illness unless they are part of a bigger issue. For example, if depression is interfering with your ability to work or maintain relationships, then yes, it can be a mental health issue.

The idea of being “at risk of” mental illness is also complicated. “I worry about that message,” says Parker, noting that it implies that human beings are innately fragile, and may develop mental illness simply by not using the app.

One of the fundamental problems with mental health apps is that they make assumptions about people’s personal background, assuming that most users are white, middle class, and have a traditional family structure. “Even something as simple as a mindfulness app, they show white people with families going to the orchestra,” Parker says.

Apps, in general, want people to continue using them, which is contradictory for an app that claims to help you resolve an issue. If you don’t actually have a problem, the app could convince you otherwise, and if you do have a problem, the app may be an obstacle to seeking out real, professional help since you may be waiting for the app to do the trick.

Parker recommends knowing what you expect of the app and keeping your expectations realistic. The American Psychiatric Association has a guide that helps to evaluate mental health apps, but it’s designed for therapists. It requires doing in-depth research into the app company. Given that none of the apps are required to conduct studies to prove that they work, it is difficult to know who to trust.

In the end, apps may help with simple functions like meditating or calorie counting, but be wary of marketing that leads you from one app to the next. All these mixed messages may, in fact, be making you crazy.

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