By | September 27, 2016

The world of mental health services is evolving. Today, many apps have been created to provide both medical and mental health guidance to those with disabilities. However, the relative recent entrance of health apps is only starting to produce study results. In other words, this new means of caring for those with disabilities or physical health ailments through smartphones is starting to become a new standard for care, and you need to understand what it means for the role of mobile technology in better overall health.


What Makes Apps for Mental Health Services Effective?

Multiple mental health apps (MHapps) were carefully reviewed in a recent study, reports the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Researchers identified 16 criteria all MHapps need to be considered effective, which include the following:

  • The apps need to be based in cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Apps must address anxiety and depression together.
  • The apps are not expressly meant for use in clinical settings, i.e., the apps are geared toward the public.
  • MHapps need customization features for each user.
  • MHapps should include the ability to report thought and feelings.
  • The app needs to provide a list of recommended activities to improve mental health.
  • Users should be able to control the app in real time.
  • Activities linked to worsening of symptoms need to be identified in the app.
  • Although an app is based on mobile technology, recommended activities should be nontechnology-based.
  • Gamification is needed to make the app “more fun” and engaging.
  • Apps should track previous use for reference.
  • Apps need to include reminders.
  • All app-based interactions should contain a simple user interface.
  • MHapps must include links to crisis support services.
  • Experimental trials and features should be part of ongoing research by the developer to help the adapt better serve users.

Other studies have looked at specific MHapps as well. Recently, the efficacy of the MHapp, PTSD Coach, was studied to find the overall improvements made to symptomology of PTSD were significant when compared to those who forgo any form of treatment, reports Springer Link. Meanwhile, the MHapp, myStrength, is transforming how mental health professionals begin treating those with behavioral health problems.


How Are Apps Helping Those With Mental Health Problems?

MHapps have been linked to improved mental health across the country. In fact, Boston Medical Center (BMC) gives all employees a free, six-month subscription to Sleepio, a cognitive behavioral therapy-based app to prevent insomnia, anxiety and depression, reports Forbes magazine.

Part of the success of this particular program revolves around how it reduces overall health care costs for BMC employees. Ultimately, fewer sick days relating to depression, anxiety or insomnia results in cost savings for the company. More importantly, MHapps appear to be more widely embraced by users when compared to other traditional health programs for staff members.

For example, smoking cessation or fitness programs typically have 5- to 10-percent uptake from staff, but the uptake of MHapps, especially Sleepio, stands out at approximately 20 percent.

Of course, some apps do charge users, but these costs reflect the cost of developing the app and maintaining security. Even though MHapps may be designed for use by the public and behavioral health professionals, all apps must meet HIPAA standards. In other words, the information within the app needs to be kept secure from malware or unauthorized entry if a user were to lose his or her smartphone.


The Importance of Continuing to See a Professional in a Physical Setting

More than 165,000 apps have been developed for mobile health care, asserts UC Davis Health System, and the overwhelming majority of these apps are MHapps. Currently, the volume of MHapps has made analyzing the efficacy of each app nearly impossible.

Both the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are continuing to debate the best way to approach the problem. However, the FDA has clearly left decisions for the use or disuse of apps in the hands of behavioral therapists. In many cases, clients are turning to psychiatrists, psychologists or behavioral health therapists for their opinions on the efficacy of apps. Therefore, you need to review each app before making any recommendation to your clients.

Although MHapps may reduce barriers to behavioral health treatment, they should not replace seeing a professional. Until further research has been compiled, all clients with mental health problems should continue seeing a professional unless discharged from care by his or her provider or therapist.


Final Thoughts

The normalcy of MHapps in caring for those you serve is slowly growing, and the amount of research available will grow in tandem. For clients, the opportunities to get care at a much lower cost than seeing a traditional therapist or caregiver are too great to ignore. Regardless of personal beliefs, mental health services continue to have a stigma in society, but MHapps have the potential to help move the conversation in a positive direction.

You need to know what to look for in MHapps, and your clients are counting on you to know which apps are the best to use. If you have not yet ventured into app-based care for behavioral health services, you are falling behind the learning curve. Know what apps are out there, and help your clients learn to use them to improve their overall mental health. By taking these simple steps today, you can make a difference in the community you serve.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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