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Demand for mental health apps is spiking
May 28, 2020

Demand for mental health apps is spiking

But do they work, and how is your data handled?

This is the kind of thing that could make Freud turn over in his grave: apps where you do therapy with a robot. There are also apps to monitor the side effects of medications, apps to help with PTSD and the list goes on and on. 

COVID-19 has opened up the conversation about teletherapy, but online mental health care goes way beyond putting a therapist’s office online. That doesn’t mean technology is going to put therapists out of business. 

“An algorithm is not going to decide your care,” said John Torous, a psychiatrist who runs the division of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess hospital in Boston. He does use the technology to help patients keep track of things that affect their mental health.   

Daniel Swensen, a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana, who has clinical depression, uses an app to let him rate his mood, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. “That kind of gives me a moment to realize this emotion isn’t me,” he said. 

By some counts there are as many as 10,000 mental health apps, so maybe it’s no surprise that the prices are all over the map: from free downloads to $400 for a lifetime membership with a popular meditation app.

Adam Powell, a health care consultant, says all of this means it’s hard to know how much the mental health app business is actually worth.

“Some of the variation has to do with how that market’s defined,” he said, because it could include wellness apps or just strictly mental health apps, apps that can be billed to insurance or not and so on. 

Stephanie Zerwas, a therapist in North Carolina, got a grant to design an app for people with eating disorders but eventually gave up on it because a startup was doing it faster. That got her wondering how these should be regulated. “Do we think of these apps as being FDA-approved drugs? We need to make sure that they’re effective before we launch them to the market,” she said. 

A lot of these apps are being developed by companies, and Torous said he’s worried about what those companies do with people’s data.

What if you also gave this app access to your GPS so it knows where you sleep at night?” he asked. “And you gave this app access to your call and text records, so it knows who your friends and contacts and romantic relationships are?”

Drug companies, marketing companies and insurance companies might be interested in the data you’re sharing as part of your mental health care. They might be less interested in your well-being.

Residents of Los Angeles County can sign up for access to Headspace Plus at no cost until December 31. (Joe Maher/Getty Images for Headspace)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

CNBC reports the most popular mental wellness apps were downloaded 4 million times in April, up almost 30% since the pandemic began. The FDA has also relaxed some regulations on the use of teletherapy. In mid-April, the agency said it would ease some pre-market requirements for apps and online programs that treat depression, insomnia and anxiety.

Also watching:

To quote a friend, “HBO Max, what even are you?” The premium streaming service launched Wednesday. It’s got new shows that are called Max Originals, 10,000 hours of movies and TV and costs $15 a month, which is a lot. It is not the same thing as HBO Go, which you get if you subscribe to HBO on cable. It is not the same thing as HBO Now, which a lot of people already pay $15 a month for. You can convert your HBO Now subscription to HBO Max, but not if you pay for HBO Now through Amazon Prime or your Roku service or Apple TV or Hulu. Also, HBO Max doesn’t even actually work on Roku or Amazon Fire devices, even though those two platforms combined are how 70% of people access streaming content. It also doesn’t support 4K HDR streaming

This is obviously a really prime time for a streaming service to launch with a really good library of content and a household brand name. Yet somehow, HBO has managed to out-Quibi Quibi.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer