How do mental health apps work?
Mental health apps are applications that help to improve and maintain your mental health condition. They employ various techniques to help their users to cope with stress, address their mental issues, or concentrate. Mental health apps can be put into the following categories:
- Therapy apps that provide online counseling or virtual therapy services. They can either connect you with therapists or provide mental health tips.
- Meditation apps offering guided meditation services. These apps are extremely popular and help users to cope with stress and increase awareness.
- Apps dealing with specific mental health issues. Some apps target users with specific mental health issues and help them cope with them. For example, some apps help people with PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and other specific mental health disorders.
- Awareness apps that raise awareness about specific mental issues, for example, suicide prevention.
- Stress-reducing apps, for example, apps providing breathing exercises.
- Mood-boosting apps that offer various games and activities to boost your mood and energy levels.
- Sleep apps. These apps help their users to sleep better. They produce data on sleep patterns, provide various tips on sleep issues, or play background sounds that help the person to fall asleep.
Despite such diversity in the market, mental health apps can’t replace actual psychotherapy or medical treatment. Of course, these apps are better than nothing and can still provide much-needed assistance on a daily basis, but they work best when combined with professional psychological services. If you have more serious issues, don’t rely on such applications. Instead, see a certified mental health professional.
Mental health apps’ privacy issues
While mental health apps are designed to improve your life, they have a few digital side effects. A recent study by Mozilla researchers identified that many applications have messy and vague privacy policies, collect user data, and even share data with third parties. A few applications even collected sensitive data such as chat transcripts.
The research criticized the whole digital mental health services industry, stating that most mental health apps are a “data harvesting bonanza” and “track, share, and capitalize on users’ most intimate personal thoughts and feelings.” Many services collect data from users’ devices or third-party platforms.
People share intimate and personal details in these apps, so app developers and interested third parties have extremely sensitive data at their disposal. It’s very unethical of them to use such data for marketing or other profit-fueled purposes.
Here are a few other issues concerning mental health applications:
- Mental health apps usually don’t need to comply with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations. This law requires healthcare professionals and services to keep all data private. Because these applications fall outside of the medical field, HIPAA doesn’t apply to them, and they are free to do what they want with users’ data.
- Many apps have weak security features. For example, some of them allow users to use weak passwords or don’t protect user data properly. So users face risk of data breaches and leaks. It’s shocking to think that such sensitive data can fall into the hands of cybercriminals.
- Applications, especially free mental health apps, sometimes use targeted ads based on collected data. Some services sell data to third parties, so these ads can resurface in other applications.
- Teenagers and young adults form a substantial part of users. These groups are particularly vulnerable because they can be more sensitive and less experienced in coping with psychological online threats and abuses. Parents and mental health professionals should keep an eye on the apps that teens and young people use. Moreover, app developers should also act more responsibly.
- Mental health applications are not a viable measure for treating serious mental health conditions.
Best and safest mental health apps
We are not advocating against using mental health applications, but you should use them carefully and consider the risks described above. Also, do proper research before using a mental health app and avoid dodgy free apps available from obscure sources.
Here are several safe mental health apps mentioned by Mozilla researchers:
- PTSD Coach. This app was developed by the U.S. The Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a self-help mobile app that helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The app provides users with education on the topic, information about healthcare, self-assessment tools, support opportunities, and management tools.
- Wysa. Wysa is an artificial intelligence chatbot. It’s a mood tracker, anxiety helper, and mindfulness coach rolled into a single app. It provides a friendly chat experience and stress relief and helps elevate your mood.
Of course, other good apps are available on the market, so take your time to find the best mental health app.
How to stay safe when using mental health apps
Here are a few tips on how to make your digital mental healthcare experience safe:
- Use a disposable email address when signing up. In this case, the service won’t be able to use your email address to link your identity with social media profiles and other services.
- Always tweak the app’s privacy settings for maximum privacy. Try to opt out of all data-gathering processes.
- Choose your mental health app carefully, and always do proper research before using it. Always read the terms and conditions before using these self-care tools.
- Use apps that you purchase from official stores or websites.
- Avoid free apps from obscure sources. Most of these types of apps sell data to third parties, flood you with ads, or can otherwise compromise your privacy.
- Provide only the minimum amount of information required by the app.
- Use a VPN. It won’t protect you from the malicious practices of service providers, but it will encrypt your sensitive data, which will then be less likely to fall into the wrong hands.
- Don’t rely on these types of apps if you have a more serious mental health issue. In such cases, you should find a certified mental healthcare professional.
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