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The Rise of Virtual Therapy Apps and How They May Backfire

In January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in North America. Since then, cases spread and the continent began to rollout lockdown measures. As cases of anxiety and depression spiked, in response, companies around the globe began to release virtual therapy apps. However, not all of these apps and resources are being created equally.

Although there are many incredible virtual and telehealth services now available, it’s important to understand where some fall short, especially if you require more specialized mental health care.

Virtual Apps Continue to Grow in Popularity — Many of Which Are Not-Evidence Based

COVID-19 created an immense demand for digital mental health tools. As social distancing became the new norm, interest in virtual mental health tools continued to spiked— and while many useful apps evolved, the majority are ill-equipped to deal with the complex needs of those living with serious mental health or substance abuse disorders.

Currently, there are more than 10,000 mental health-related smartphone apps — many of which were created by individuals or organizations with technology backgrounds. This means that they did not necessarily get any input from healthcare professionals when creating the app itself, and this may result in a rather slippery slope.

On one side of the spectrum, during the global pandemic, many professional therapists began moving toward telehealth-based platforms, offering services via Zoom and Skype. There’s also chat apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace, both of which connect users with certified counselors. In this case, telehealth services can be highly effective for select individuals.

On the other side of the spectrum, the growing consensus is that the majority of mental health apps are not evidence-based — some may even be dangerous. For example, researchers found that while examining more than 700 mindfulness app, only 4 percent provided acceptable training and education. There are also hundreds of apps providing inadequate advice to those living with conditions such as bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder, and other serious disorders.

Can (and Should) Apps Replace In-Person Mental Health Services?

The research shows that a trend towards digital health services highlight a growing demand — one that begun before COVID-19. While it’s clear that the general population is interested in digital mental health resources, and while numerous studies have shown that this approach can be an effective alternative, it is not ideal for everyone.

As reported in a recent review, while studying the use of smartphones in mental health, although there are many benefits associated with instant communications and support, there are ethical concerns. As discussed, mental health apps are being widely promoted, many of which contain incorrect or misleading information. This could cause more harm than good.

Also, digital apps cannot assist those who need physical services. For example, medication management for opioid addiction can only be achieved in-person. As stated in a Vox article from late March, “providers of mental health apps and chatbots say that usage has gone up, but their services aren’t a replacement for live counseling with a therapist.”

The message here is that yes, evidence-based apps and professional online digital services serve a purpose, and in many ways, they are effective. However, when it comes to mental health treatment, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. In many cases, complex disorders and occurring mental health conditions require specialized interventions. If you or a loved one are suffering, we can help.

Please contact one of our locations today!

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