Survey Reveals High Interest in Smartphone Apps for Mental Health Care

June 29, 2019

A recent study by McLean Hospital researchers revealed the broad popularity of smartphone apps to assist in mental health monitoring and treatment.

The findings were presented in “Smartphone, Social Media, and Mental Health App Use in an Acute Transdiagnostic Psychiatric Sample.” The paper, published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth, shows high rates of interest in smartphone apps among individuals with severe psychiatric disorders.

The study was based on responses to a questionnaire filled out by adult patients in McLean’s Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program. Responses revealed that 74% of participants were interested in using their smartphones to monitor their mental health.

The most popular types of mental health apps among the respondents were for mindfulness and meditation, although only 44% had a mental health app installed on their phones. The survey also showed that many patients thought that social media apps were potentially harmful to mental health.

According to researcher Courtney Beard, PhD, director of McLean’s Cognition and Affect Research and Education (CARE) Laboratory, the study was “the largest to date to examine interest in using smartphones specifically for mental health.” She said the study differed from previous investigations because of its high rate of participation.

“Many earlier studies had only about 10% participation, so results could be quite biased,” she explained. “In our case, we were able to add a brief survey to a regular clinical monitoring battery that we use in our clinics. This allowed us to get everyone to complete it.”

Young woman in white sweater holds smartphone
McLean research has shown high rates of interest in smartphone apps among individuals with mental health disorders

Study participants, Beard reported, were equally split between male and female and showed a wide diversity in age and clinical characteristics. However, Beard pointed out, most of the participants were “well-educated and belonged to high socioeconomic groups.”

In addition, she said, “About 98% had smartphones, so the survey gauges interest among a ‘super user’ type of group.”

Analysis of survey results revealed that education level was the only predictor of interest in using smartphone apps for mental health. “While everybody had high interest, people who were more educated had the highest interest,” said Beard. “Age did not predict interest, but it did predict frequency of use. For most general apps, younger people used them most frequently.”

Beard and her colleagues hope to build on this research by surveying individuals with lower education levels and greater ethno-racial diversity. They would also like to take a closer look at the functions and effectiveness of the many apps available to mental health patients. This would allow them to find out which can be most useful.

“There are well over 10,000 apps that say they help with mental health or well-being. But there is almost no evidence that they do what they say they do,” said Beard. “The consumer has no idea which ones would be helpful in general or helpful for their particular problem. We’d like to continue our work to learn more about what patients want and need.”

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