What should I look for in a mental health app?

Martha Neary, PsyberGuide
Online

Mental health is personal - because there are many different ways to experience mental health problems, the best treatment can depend on the individual. The same can be said of mental health apps. When you’re looking for a mental health app, it can be helpful to look at objective ratings, such as those found on PsyberGuide. However, there is no “magic number” which can tell you which app to choose. Different people value different things in a mental health app - some people prioritize an app that has strong research evidence, while others focus on the design and feel of the app. Here are three things to look out for when choosing an app that’s right for you.

1) Credibility - how likely is it that the app will actually work?

Some apps have direct evidence and have been investigated in research studies and clinical trials. These studies may have shown that using the app leads to improved outcomes, when compared to outcomes of people who used something else. But the number of mental health apps that have been explored in these types of studies is relatively small, when we consider that there are thousands of apps available for download. Other apps may be grounded in established research principles - for example, although not every mindfulness app has been examined is a research trial, there is research to suggest that mindfulness can be helpful for anxiety and depression. A good place to start investigating the research evidence for an app is the app website - many good quality apps will clearly document the research supporting the app’s use on their own site, whether that’s direct or indirect research support.

2) Privacy & data security - what does the app do with your data?

It’s important for you to know what happens with the data you enter into any app. Every app should have a privacy policy which should inform you about how the app handles your data - unfortunately, often these policies are written in complicated language and can be hard to read. At the very least, make sure the app actually has a privacy policy, which will be linked in the iTunes or Google Play store. If you are unsure of the security of an app, avoid entering any identifiable information.

3) Engagement & design - what is the experience of using the app?

“User Experience”, sometimes referred to as just UX, is the overall experience of using an app or program - is it easy, fun, engaging, interesting to use? Even if an app is likely to work, if the experience of using the app needs is negative, we are less likely to use it continuously and reap its benefits. An objective measure of User Experience is the Mobile App Rating Scale, which we use at PsyberGuide. Looking to screenshots of the app in the app store can help give you an idea of the look and feel of the app before you download it. If you are put off by apps or websites that aren’t designed well, have glitches or are slow to function, it’s unlikely you will use an app that has a poor user experience.

Many people use a ‘trial and error’ method of app selection - they download some apps, try them for a little while, and figure out if they like them. With so many free apps out there, this is a good option if you have the time and resources to put into a process of investigation.

If you don’t; a resource that provides all of this information in one spot is PsyberGuide. Apps are scored on credibility, user experience, and data transparency, so you can choose an app based on the score that’s most important to you. For more information on how we rate apps, click here.

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