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Mental health apps: lack of regulation leaves users at risk

Photo: Mental health apps: lack of regulation leaves users at risk
Mental Health apps have seen a growth in both numbers and popularity, but while there are benefits to this type of innovative technology, lack of regulation can leave users at risk, says counselling psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist Dr Karen Phillip.

“Although there is some evidence that empirically based mental-health apps and sessions can improve outcomes for patients, the vast majority remain unstudied,” says Dr Phillip.

“We are finding more and more people are sourcing use of these apps every year however, there is no conclusive proof that they help the user. 

“In its Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended ‘promotion of self-care through the use of electronic and mobile health technologies’.

“This of course was speaking about technologies from professional and reputable sites only.”
Data from WHO shows that many people - up to 55% in developed countries and 85% in developing ones - are not getting the treatment they need.

Given the use of smartphones, Dr Phillip says apps might serve as a digital lifeline, especially for those located in rural and low-income regions, putting a therapist in everyone’s pocket.

“There is considerable literature showing that Internet-based therapeutic approaches that aim to change problematic thoughts and behaviours, can be effective.

“It is important for those planning the use of smartphone mental health Apps to be aware of the evidence base for their use.

“It gives the person some personal power taking control back of themselves. It can allow us to reach people that up until recently were unreachable to us.”

It was for this reason that Dr Phillip began virtualhypnotherapy.com, an on-line hypnotherapy site to help people deal with a variety of issues.

“This has worked incredibly well for all users. Instead of paying considerable to attend the rooms they can download and use the sessions whenever they want or need.

“I feel this is the way many busy people will continue to go as they take back control and retake charge of them self and their life.”

But the dangers lie in unproven and non-reputable apps or downloads that do not come from a professional or qualified source.

“I believe this industry does need regulation and only apps and downloads from qualified professional sources should be permitted to be sold.

“Without good regulation we will get what we have always got - non-helpful apps that promise much, yet deliver little, leaving the individual no better off.”

While mental health professionals may recommend apps for those who cannot get to sessions or attend therapy as often as they would like, technology should not be seen as a substitute for therapy.

“If a person is in need of specialised individual therapy they cannot take the place of engaging with someone, this is specifically for abuse or grief type issues.

“Apps won’t replace traditional therapy, as this requires vulnerability and disclosure on the part of the individual, followed by an empathic connection with the therapist to promote change.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.