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Mental health care via your smartphone might not be the answer

There’s an app for everything these days. Technology continues to make our lives easier, increasingly replacing real-life human interaction with a wealth of information available 24/7 on a small screen.

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But when it comes to mental health can a smartphone really replace direct access to an experienced, qualified professional?

No, says Simon Leigh, health economist from the University of Liverpool. Writing for The Conversation, he says there is “a large gap between the theoretical benefits of mental health apps and what they are likely to deliver in practice.”

On the face of it mental health apps could be a good alternative form of therapy for those unable to access more conventional treatments, such as those who are too fragile or self-conscious to discuss their condition face-to-face, or those who can’t afford to pay for talking therapies (a 2014 report from the We Need to Talk coalition showed that 50 percent of people waiting for NHS counselling and psychotherapy have to wait over three months for their first session, and one in 10 of them have to wait for a year or longer).

The NHS health apps library endorses 27 mental health apps, 14 of which aim to treat or manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to Leigh, only four of these apps currently provide any hard evidence of effectiveness. And only two of them use NHS-accredited ways of determining how effective mental health treatments are, for example the Generalised Anxiety Disorder 7 questionnaire.

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The main issue is that those who trust the apps endorsed by the NHS may end up feeling even worse if they don’t prove to be beneficial.

The good news is that from Oct. 16 the NHS health apps library will no longer exist and the organisation is looking for new, improved methods of assessing and regulating health apps.

In the meantime the Mental Health Apps Library, which was set up in March 2015, provides details of apps and online tools that may be therapeutic for people with mild and moderate anxiety and depression. Each one complies with Improving Access to Psychological Therapies quality standards,and offers National Institute of Health and Care Excellence approved treatments that can demonstrate effectiveness in treating mild and moderate depression and anxiety. Some are only available via NHS referral, while others can be paid for privately.

Apps listed include Big White Wall, an anonymous service that provides a “safe and supportive community” and trained staff around the clock; Buddy, a digital diary which is recommended for use alongside face-to-face therapy sessions; and Leso Digital Health, which “offers live, confidential one-to-one cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a therapist via secure instant messaging.”

If you are experiencing mental health difficulties visit Mind (England and Wales) or SAMH (Scotland) for information, help and support.

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