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Is there a place for mobile apps in mental health?

Tagged In:  Mental Health

Technology has enormous potential to make a significant difference to the lives of people suffering mental health issues.

That can range from innovative and patient-friendly apps to improved access to digital remote healthcare in mental health treatment and better use of data analytics.

The subject was a key area of discussion at the EHI Live conference in Birmingham at the beginning of November and included issues such as how technology is currently used in mental health and how making technology more accessible and understandable for GPs can help with mental health diagnosis and treatment. 

Data-driven approach can save lives

Former health minister and mental health champion, Norman Lamb, told the UK’s largest digital health event that using money upfront to create a data driven approach to mental health had the potential to save lives. He also suggested there needs to be more use of digital remote healthcare in mental health treatment.

Having spoken of his own family’s experiences with mental health issues, the Lib-Dem MP for North Norfolk threw down a challenge to the healthcare IT sector of a role they can play in not just using apps, but in harnessing data to measure the delivery of services essential for people with mental ill health.

Better use of technology and data by healthcare professionals (including mental health nurses and doctors) emerged as a key area in delivering more joined-up care for patients.

Apps for mental health

Dr Knut Schroeder from the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol discussed “the role of health apps in mental health” – and how they are meeting patients’ needs, improving outcomes and quality of life.

A practising GP, he suggested that apps meet the “need for information”, address the “stigma associated with help-seeking” and deliver ongoing support.

Pros and cons

Benefits of mental health mobile apps, he said, were significant in that they provide psychoeducation, enhance provider/patient communication, offer self-monitoring, reduce stigma, supplement and support therapy and empower the patient.

There are, however, pros and cons: on the plus side, they are convenient, anonymous, low cost and offer an introduction to care and can offer a consistent and 24-hour service to more people; but the effectiveness is never certain with the need for guidance, privacy and regulation and avoiding over-selling them.

Range of benefits

Different types of app offer a range of benefits: the work-out app can increase well-being and manage problems; a mind shift app can manage anxiety, change thinking and reduce stress; and the mindfulness coach app can offer exercises and reminders.

The SAM (Self-help for Anxiety Management) app was highlighted as a success in meeting user needs – winner best anxiety app 2016 – and was developed by experts with user input.

This was an area Dr Schroeder stressed was particularly important – the value of keeping users involved in the development of apps and other mental health technology to test assumptions, offer new ideas and make improvements.
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