Can you trust an app with your mental health?

We’re used to technology offering us fixes for life’s problems. But the growth in apps to ward off mental illness hides a gaping hole in access to treatment


April 7, 2016

Emoji Faces — Matthew LaPenta -
Emoji Faces Sculpture — Matthew LaPenta –

I’m writing this piece as I sit on a sofa that I purchased through an app, having come home late from work via a car that I summoned with a single tap. After eating soup that I ordered from Seamless, I took my rescue dog, who I adopted via Petfinder, for a walk. While we paced the streets, I listened on my phone to a podcast. I think I’d be called a “heavy smartphone user”, but I do have limits: I’ve not yet come to rely on the small rectangle of glass and metal in my pocket to maintain my mental health. But that’s not for a lack of opportunity.

Mental health is a huge global issue. About one in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetimes, and while there are many kinds of therapy that are very effective, access to them is extremely limited, whether because of the proximity of resources, the cost, or the stigma associated with mental ill health that causes many people to avoid seeking help for fear of a loss of respect or status. Often it’s a combination of these factors. Our digital openness about so many other aspects of our lives – our willingness to share photos of our every tedious lunch, to seek partners to satisfy our sexual whims, or to announce our pregnancies – has yet to truly extend to our mental wellbeing.

In light of the scope of the problem, it’s not surprising that many people in the tech industry have decided to try their hands at changing the face of mental healthcare by building apps to help treat it: according to Nature this week, there are over 1,500. Yet of these 1,500 apps, very little research has been done to measure their efficacy, and very little information is available about which can help and which might even hinder recovery.

Some research has shown that people who are heavy smartphone users are more likely than non-users to suffer from depression. And I’m inclined to think that while a well-built app might play a role in the long, hard work of managing mental illness – for example, in keeping a record of behavior that might flag things that exacerbate symptoms, or assisting with meditation – a phone will never be a substitute for the support and safety that’s offered by real people.