This article is sponsored by Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.
Mental illness is a growing crisis in America that has been compounded by the pandemic1,2. In fact, more than 52 million adult Americans reported experiencing a mental illness in 2020 alone, according to the National Institute of Mental Health3. The silver lining is people are talking about their mental health and there are more options for getting help than ever before4.
“As conversations around mental health are normalized around the world, many people are exploring new and different management tools and resources to combat their condition,” said Dr. Stephen Schueller, associate professor of Psychological Science and Informatics at the University of California. Schueller continues, “In fact, one of the more common tools people are turning to are mental health apps.”
It’s estimated that more than 10,000 mental health apps are currently available in major apps stores5. With so many apps to choose from, it can be overwhelming to navigate through the options, prompting questions such as “what’s the difference between these apps?” or “which app is best for me?”
Understanding the Differences Between Apps
So, what are the differences between mental health apps and what features should potential users consider? As this is a relatively new and fast-growing area of healthcare, it’s important to understand that there are different categories of mental health apps designed to address specific objectives.
These include overall wellness apps and digital therapeutics:
Wellness apps are software intended to promote healthy behaviors and wellness through things like teaching meditation skills, helping users stick to healthy habits, and providing general information and tips. They are not treatments for mental health conditions. These apps are generally not supported by evidence-based research and are not regulated6,7,8.
“There are a wide range of wellness apps available to patients as well as clinicians, but these apps have little to no oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and many of them have not been reviewed or studied in a clinical trial to support claims of efficacy or safety,” according to Schueller.
Unlike wellness apps, digital therapeutics are defined as high-quality software applications that help prevent, manage or treat a medical condition. These are often recommended and used under the care of a physician9.
Digital therapeutics help empower patients and clinicians with intelligent and accessible tools for addressing a wide range of conditions through high-quality, safe and effective data-driven interventions9. According to Schueller, these apps must meet certain core principles regarding user privacy, security and clinical evidence9.
- Prescription Digital Therapeutics
Within digital therapeutics, there are prescription digital therapeutics, or PDTs9. “PDTs require more rigorous and additional testing in clinical studies and ultimately must gain clearance from the FDA, demonstrating they can treat a condition safely and effectively,” said Schueller. “Importantly, PDTs can only be prescribed by a clinician.”
Having a foundational understanding of available apps and the difference between app categories is the first step, but there are also a few key questions to ask while navigating the vast world of mental health apps, including:
- Are there data or studies showing this app is effective at what it claims to do?
- Who is the app developer and what experience do they have in mental health?
- How will personal data be protected? Will data be shared with third parties?
- What do trusted sources (like clinicians, regulators or independent rating groups) say about this product?
“Taking the time to do the research and ask the critical questions is an important step before using any health app,” said Dr. Schueller, adding, “However, if you are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, don’t try to rely on an app alone, talk to a doctor about a treatment plan that is right for you.”
For more information on navigating the vast world of mental health apps click here.
- Kearney, A., Hamel, L., & Brodie, M. (2021, April 14). Mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: An update. KFF. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/poll-finding/mental-health-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/
- Mental health – A Workforce Crisis. American Heart Association CEO Roundtable. (2019, March 5). https://ceoroundtable.heart.org/mental-health-a-workforce-crisis-report/
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Mental illness. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
- Naslund, J. A., & Aschbrenner, K. A. (2021, September 12). Technology use and interest in digital apps for Mental Health Promotion and lifestyle intervention among young adults with serious mental illness. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadr.2021.100227
- Clay, R. A. (2021, January 1). Mental health apps are gaining traction. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/01/trends-mental-health-apps
- Stoyanov, S. R., et al. (2015, November 3). Mobile app rating scale: A new tool for assessing the quality of Health Mobile Apps. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. https://mhealth.jmir.org/2015/1/e27/
- Bakker, D., Kazantzis, N., Rickwood, D., & Rickard, N. (2016). Mental Health Smartphone Apps: Review and Evidence-Based Recommendations for Future Developments. JMIR mental health, 3(1), e7. https://doi.org/10.2196/mental.4984
- Torous, J., Luo, J., & Chan, S. R. (2018, March). Mental health apps: What to tell patients. Current Psychiatry. https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/159127/depression/mental-health-apps-what-tell-patients
- Digital Therapeutics Alliance. Digital Therapeutics: Combining Technology and Evidence-based Medicine to Transform Personalized Patient Care. (2018, October). https://www.dtxalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DTA-Report_DTx-IndustryFoundations.pdf