Consumers warned about mental health apps

Sarah Wiedersehn
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Consumers warned about mental health apps

Australians using 'mindfulness' apps for mental health support are being urged to be cautious as experts call for greater regulation of the 'booming' digital health market.

Dr Quinn Grundy, a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Sydney's Faculty of Pharmacy based at the Charles Perkins Centre says apps have the potential to deliver tailored, accessible and cost-effective mental health services.

However, they can also be potentially harmful and it's really difficult for consumers to sort through the tens-of-thousands of available apps, Dr Grundy says.

She says their analysis of the "best of the best" apps - funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) - found little evidence that they are effective at improving mental health.

"In the end we didn't feel comfortable in endorsing any of these apps because even the ones that were from reputable organisations didn't provide the privacy assurances one would hope for.

"Or if they had a great privacy policy it was unclear that the developer had any mental health expertise or that it was based on sound evidence," Dr Grundy told AAP.

There is even concern that some apps could make a person's mental health worse, said Dr Gundy.

"There was a lot of messages around how easy and quickly the app could solve your problems, so we wondered if a consumer didn't get better would they blame themselves?"

Many also suggested that "every day problems", like trouble sleeping and stress, were a sign of a mental health issue.

PHD student Jazmin says she started using a mindfulness app that promoted itself as being able to help lesson anxiety because of her "poor response to stress".

"It was a particularly busy period for me with study as well as trying to establish a startup, and I felt quite stressed," she said.

After a while the app actually worsened her anxiety.

"At first I found the meditations useful, particularly at night. But the requirement for daily reporting started to get annoying, and I realised that when I rated myself as feeling down, that actually compounded those feelings, I ended up feeling worse. So I gave it up."

Dr Grundy says currently governments are doing little to regulate this market.

Professor Lisa Bero, a pharmacologist and researcher in evidence-based health care, agrees there is a case for greater regulation.

"Apps tend to be highly commercialised, yet biases resulting from app sponsorship or promotion are an area that has remained relatively unexplored," Prof Bero said.

Dr Grundy will present her analysis at the Bias and Research Integrity Node Symposium hosted by the University's Charles Perkins Centre on Tuesday.

The symposium will discuss the issue of mental health apps and the need for regulation to ensure consumers receive quality, safe, evidence-based support.