Opinion

Latimer: Apps don’t replace real therapy

Is there an app for that? This little line has aptly defined the recent age of smart phones, tablets and related technological toys.

We truly do carry our “life in our pockets” these days. Chances are if you’ve thought of it, there is an app for it.

Psychiatry and mental health are no exception to this growing trend.

A search under ‘mental health’ in the app store brings up 250 options. Psychiatry brings up almost 100.

There has recently been some media attention surrounding the so-called therapy apps and speculation about their usefulness as tools in the treatment of psychiatric conditions—even questions about whether these may one day eliminate the need for face-to-face therapy altogether.

Will anyone need to visit a doctor when they can receive therapy anytime, anywhere using their phone?

Some of the available apps are designed like video games where a user practices a behaviour designed to help them with a given symptom in a technique called cognitive bias modification.

There are exercises for a variety of issues ranging from decreasing an anxiety response in certain situations to learning not to drink too much.

Another set of therapy apps are tools designed to help people keep track of their condition, treatment or progress.

There are electronic diaries for mood or anxiety disorders where individuals can keep track of their symptoms every day and share this information with health care providers.

In my opinion, these complementary tools such as the electronic mood diaries can be very helpful to assist in managing a mental health condition.

While not providing therapy in themselves, they are a convenient, portable way to track treatment progress between appointments.

Many psychiatrists and counsellors have been assigning this kind of ‘homework’ to patients for years. Electronic tools such as these apps simply make this easier.

As for the apps claiming to truly offer therapy in some sense—the video games with cognitive behavioural goals, etc.—some of them may prove to be useful, but I believe many will simply be a passing phase or a gimmick with little therapeutic benefit in the long run.

Certainly, continued research into their individual effectiveness will be the test of exactly how much weight to give therapy apps when it comes to the management of mental health conditions.

Meantime, a trained and certified mental health professional can provide education, lifestyle recommendations, tips and exercises along with therapy or medical treatment to help minimize the negative effects of mental health issues.

If you are experiencing mental health symptoms, I strongly urge you to speak with someone about it. Help is available and you needn’t sort it all out on your own.

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