Your mental health app's diagnosis could be way off

Apps that help us deal with our well-being can often be helpful and comforting, but how much should we rely on a mobile application to tell us how to cope with our mental health struggles?

According to new research conducted by the University of Sydney in Australia, there may be some major problems in the way mental health apps are framing mental illness and diagnosing users.

The research, which was recently published by the American Academy of Family Physicians, consisted of a qualitative content analysis of 61 mental health apps across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The researchers conducted an interpretive analysis to identify key themes in the various applications, finding two main problems in the apps' framing of mental health: identifying who has a mental health problem, and how the problem can be managed.

The researchers first noted the problems when they realized how users were being diagnosed by the apps. "Explanations about mental health focused on abnormal responses to mild triggers," the researchers noted. "[The apps] tended to medicalize normal mental states." The researchers also found that the apps "promoted personal responsibility" for mental health improvement. "Therapeutic strategies included relaxation, cognitive guidance, and self-monitoring," described Lisa Parker, Ph.D. MBBS, of AAAS.

Of course, when it comes to mental health, relying on technology alone has its limitations. If an individual is concerned about their emotional state, seeking help from a therapist is typically a good choice — but if one feels inclined to consult an online source first, a mental health app is often an accessible resource.

While any form of self-help can be useful, Parker says it's usually only one step in coping with mental illness. "In light of the tremendous popularity of mental health apps," Parker explains, "the authors suggest that doctors emphasize to patients that self-help is just one aspect of a supportive mental health approach."