CAN A THERAPIST BE REPLACED BY AN APP?

Updated: Feb 19

Over the past few years, there’s been a boom in mental health apps, with researchers estimating there are now about 10.000 apps available for download (1).


The apps offer a range of services, including meditation guidance, telepsychiatry, online therapy, and symptom tracking and management. The rise in mental health apps mirrors our society’s increased awareness about mental health, encouraging people to take notice of their own mental health state. But many health experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of most of these apps and whether the technology has what it takes to replace mental health professionals.


From the looks of it, mental health apps aren’t going to replace doctors or therapists anytime soon. Many of the apps haven’t been studied, and most aren’t connected to a healthcare provider or therapist, which puts a cap on how helpful an app can be.


But certain apps — specifically ones that are clinically backed — could become an important tool used in conjunction with in-office visits. When proven effective, these apps could help break down the barriers to mental health treatment.

One of the main problems with the apps is that the vast majority aren’t clinically proven. If an app hasn’t been studied or tested on people, there’s no way to know if it provides any real value and if nobody is being alerted of a person’s decline in mental health that an app is picking up on, the result could be catastrophic.


The apps that are most likely going to shape the future of healthcare are the ones that have been studied and validated. But even when the apps are studied, it can take a long time before we’re able to make use of them.


And another significant issue is that the vast majority of app users don’t stick with it. According to a recent study, less than 10 percent of people use mobile mental health apps for more than 10 days. Lastly, people still may feel uncomfortable opening up on an app. It can be scary and vulnerable to talk about your mental health, let alone when you’re doing it with an app.


But the development of more medically sound mental health apps could significantly improve access to mental health care. Most people with a mental health or substance abuse issue don’t get treatment. This happens for a variety of reasons: Some can’t afford treatment, others don’t have a way of getting to and from an appointment, and some people’s symptoms are so severe they’re unable to function or leave the house.


Furthermore, people who do seek help typically only see their therapists semi-regularly (once a week, a month, or even every couple months). There’s a massive lag in between sessions where all kinds of stuff can happen. Apps have the potential to monitor emotional changes on an hourly, daily basis, which can clue healthcare providers into what’s happening during those lags.


And therein lies the big promise of these apps: They’re inexpensive, they can reach millions of people, and when developed properly, can provide people with consistent, reliable treatment.


But Mental health experts say these apps won’t replace therapists anytime soon, but many may soon be used in conjunction with in-office visits. When developed properly, certain apps have the potential to break down the barriers to mental health treatment and transform the mental health care system.



Maren is a full-time diabetes advocate who founded her first Diabetes Startup mysugarcase shortly after her diagnosis in 2008. By offering unique & innovative medical bags she wanted to eliminate the uncertainty about the storage, public image & transport of medications. With the foundation of LIV, Maren would like to do even more to make the living with chronic illnesses more liveable.

Source: (1) JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Oct-Dec; 5(4): e11715. Published online 2018 Nov 16.

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