Discover Why Mental Health Apps Can Miss The Mark When It Comes To Anxiety And Depression

You’ve probably downloaded a mental health app at some point, either to attempt to become more mindful, or to tackle feelings of depression, or anxiety. But now a brand new scientific study has found that most of us stop using them after just two weeks.

So, what gives? What is it about these apps that makes us dump them after a short period of use? RSNG spoke to Sarah Bateup, BABCP accredited CBT therapist and Chief Clinical Officer at Ieso Digital Health to find out…

RSNG What does the low rate of users sticking with mental health apps tell us about the challenge of addressing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression? SARAH BATEUP, CHIEF CLINICAL OFFICER ‘Well, let’s think about how many times you have bought an app, or book, in order to achieve a goal or learn something. It might be how to lose weight, how to knit or how to treat your anxiety.’

‘Very few people will achieve their goal just by reading the book or using the app. Additionally, we know that few people will finish the book or continue using the app. That does not mean that it is impossible to learn to knit, lose weight or treat anxiety.’

‘It’s just that this method of learning requires a great deal of tenacity and most of us don’t have that. So, the fact that most users do not engage (for any length of time) with mental health apps, does not tell us anything about the challenge of treating common mental health disorders.’

‘It just tells us, at the current time and with the technology we have, that apps are not the most effective way of teaching a human being a skill.’

It’s hard to use an app to lose weight or give up smoking, but even harder to engage with an app when you are feeling anxious or depressed

RSNG Why do you think people disengage from these apps after a couple of weeks? SB ‘It is hard to use an app to lose weight or give up smoking, but even harder to engage with an app when you are feeling anxious or depressed. That is not to say that apps are a bad thing. It might be that an app is the start of someone being in help-seeking mode.’

RSNG The initial popularity of these apps show that people are looking for practical day to day things they can do to stay mentally healthy – can you give us three that are easier to stick with? SB ‘This is a hard question, because different things suit different people, but I would encourage all of us (including myself) to take time to do the things that mean something to them, whether that is being creative, taking exercise, walking by the sea or spending time with a loved one.’

As human beings we are hardwired to try and ‘push away” unpleasant sensations, feelings and emotions

RSNG We often seek external fixes (tech, food, workshops, whatever) for internal malfunctions because it seems easier to 'bolt on' solutions – but should we be looking inside ourselves first? SB ‘As human beings we are hardwired to try and ‘push away” unpleasant sensations, feelings and emotions. This is both normal and understandable. We’re also problem solvers and so we will seek to find solutions to our problems.’

‘For example, if we got home and found that we had a burst water pipe, and a puddle of water we would seek ways of solving that problem… turn off the water at the mains, call a plumber, clean up the water, claim on the insurance – but the same techniques are less effective with painful emotions.’

RSNG Is making positive change on mental health hard? SB ‘It is immensely challenging. I see this as my life’s work. There is so much to do and so many things that are so dreadfully wrong.’

‘Currently only 25% of people with anxiety or depression have access to treatment [in the UK]. Apps are trying to fill this gap and they are cheap. NHS commissioners are attracted by cost effectiveness but at the price of effectiveness. That is not say that apps are bad but they cannot possibly fill the void.’

‘Out-patient clinics in mental health services are unpleasant places. I could walk you around many large hospitals and take you to wonderful oncology clinics, contemporary outpatient departments with trendy coffee shops, works of art, green open spaces etc. I could then take you to the mental health out-patients department, dark and dingy, grubby and unpleasant.’

‘Very little research is conducted in the field of mental health, consequently progress is slow. For the last 70 years research has focussed on whether when method is better than another. The research studies are underpowered and most are not conducted in the real world.’

RSNG Can tech help us? SB ‘I do believe that tech is part of the answer to enabling us to access health care (physical and psychological), we must take care that we differentiate between different types of tech. We must also learn what works for whom and we must invest in research and development to amplify the effect of what we have.’

RSNG Are mental health apps a classic example of overthinking the solution? SB ‘No, I don’t believe so. Self-help apps are being developed to try and solve a problem of need in a society where there is insufficient access to mental health interventions that really work. Apps work for a very small amount of people and are definitely better than nothing at all. I want to see new, innovative, better apps.’

WHAT NEXT? Want to find out how sunlight connects your skin, brain, guts and mood together? Then read the RSNG article on why vitamin D is even more important this winter.

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.

Ieso Digital Health aims to improve mental health by using clinically proven digital healthcare solutions that put patients and practitioners first and remove barriers to treatment and recovery. Its Thinkwell platform enables online CBT to be delivered in real-time, anytime, anywhere, by fully qualified therapists and Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners through secure, real-time instant messaging. Ieso has conducted 200,000 therapy hours, treated over 35,000 patients in England and employs a network of around 650 therapists

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