Mental health is a problem that affects millions of people around the world. There are many different types of mental health issues, from substance abuse to depression to the currently undiscovered. In fact, there are so many problems that therapists often only specialize in one area during their schooling. Because of this and other factors, many people have turned to apps to find relief for their unique issues. However, today I want to explore why that is not only a mediocre solution but potentially dangerous as well.
Apps that aim to help people with mental illnesses often fall into one of two categories: self-help or therapy via phone. Both have problems, but I want to focus on the self-help apps first. One of the most significant issues with these apps is they lack depth. Breathing exercises, meditation, or writing prompts may be useful for overcoming panic attacks or self-discovery, but often have little effect on the overall problems. The reason for this is simple: these apps are pre-programmed. If you had family problems growing up, the app would never suggest diving into that. These self-help apps are only truly meant to help the general population with momentary struggles.
However, on the other side of the spectrum are talk therapy apps. One problem with these apps is the fact that many of them never provide contact with licensed therapists. Some apps only connect users with volunteers who are there to listen. We will go over some problems with this, but for now, suffice it to say that you may not be talking with a professional who has studied your illness, and that is not all right.
The money people spend on these apps is also outrageous for the amount of therapy they receive. Complaints against an app called Talkspace are primarily about being tricked into thinking they would have unlimited access to a therapist when in reality they would receive 2-3 canned responses per day (and often, less). Many clients feel like they are not a priority and are merely a source of cash flow.
The most prominent concern with these apps, however, is the potential for harmful suggestions to reach impressionable individuals. Free therapy apps, which likely do not have licensed professionals, give children and young adults access to a stranger who may give them wrong solutions or bully them. Although most apps are quick to ban users who engage in this behavior, the damage would already be done, and that is not something worth risking.
Even though I believe mental health apps are not a suitable long-term replacement for therapy, I do think we will reach that point someday. For now, we must reconsider the way our mental health apps are running. Instead of trying to help the largest group of people or provide mediocre individual care, we should look for ways to genuinely change even one person’s life for the better. Only when we can give that level of quality care should we revisit the idea of apps to treat mental illness.