Mental wellbeing apps: the case for & against

Apps are on the rise, promising to bring big advantages to the management of mental wellbeing. This in turn can have a significantly positive effect on physical health and quality of life. Questions remain however: Do they represent the answer? Or are they part of the problem? Andy Magill at VitalityHealth investigates

Oct 04, 2018
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The statistics are staggering. A quarter of the entire UK population will experience a mental health problem each year – ranging from anxiety to more serious issues - according to the charity Mind.

This whole area is receiving high profile support on the part of the Royals, together with various charities. This, combined with the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling mental health with the launch of the government commissioned independent Stephenson / Farmer Review, is ensuring that awareness and interest in the subject is at its peak. 

In the midst of all this, the market for user engaged apps has exploded. 

Statistics on individual usage are hard to come by. On a group level, almost half of employers now offer staff access to health and wellbeing apps, with the aim of reducing stress, anxiety and depression, according to Aon’s latest Employee Benefits & Trends Survey

Employees could indeed be receptive to the support and anonymity afforded by apps. For example, Vitality’s annual Britain’s Healthiest Workplace research found that a high proportion of employees would be uncomfortable speaking about a mental health problem with their employer. Even for the most popular workplace-related avenues available to employees – namely, line manager or another colleague – only 36% and 22% respectively said they would be willing to use these outlets. 

Employees tend to favour routes outside the workplace, turning first to friends (55%), family (65%) or a GP (62%) for support. Although they may favour these routes though, there’s a question mark over whether they’re actually being utilised considering the rising mental health issue in the UK. 

Is tech part of the problem? 

Several reports suggest that adding more technology into our lives may in fact be detrimental to mental wellbeing. We’re already suffering from a crisis of attention which sees nearly 50% of us feeling distracted and unhappy, largely attributed to digital distraction and overload. Could introducing another app into our lives therefore be more detrimental than beneficial to our mental wellbeing? 

Alternatively, if we’re all in the habit of using our smartphones all the time anyway, could directing our attention to mindfulness activities actually be beneficial? 

Here we put forward the arguments for and against. 

The case FOR apps 

Anonymity

Whilst public awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing has never been higher, it remains a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace. Research shows that 49% of people feel uncomfortable discussing anything mental health related with their employer. 

An app is therefore an attractive tool for those nervous of openly discussing issues, and can be used privately by an individual at their own pace. 

The more sophisticated apps can also tailor content for the user with personalised short and long-term goals. 

On demand

As digital natives, apps particularly appeal to those in the 18-34 year old bracket. 

And, according to a report from Yahoo, reported on in AdWeek, millennials are the driving force behind an 88% growth in fitness and health related apps. With physical health and resilience at the top of their digital agenda, it stands to reason that the younger generation will also engage well with mental wellbeing apps. 

Apps are available 24/7, which appeals to the on-demand culture to which the younger generation are accustomed. They also provide an alternative tool for those reluctant to engage with more traditional mental wellbeing services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). 

Accessible

Apps are either low or no cost, allowing access to a vast audience, meaning even those without an identified ‘issue’ can benefit.  For example, everyone could gain from the mindfulness tools and tips offered by an app, such as breathing and relaxation techniques or good sleep practice. 

The case AGAINST apps 

Isolation

Whilst anonymity is attractive for some, the fact that apps seemingly negate the need for social interactions is a concern for others. 

Identifying or addressing an issue via an app might reduce the likelihood of an individual discussing it with a friend, family member or mental health professional.  This could result in a misdiagnosis, or the wrong type of help and advice for a particular issue.  

That said, if apps are used correctly, they should be focused on prevention and will signpost to appropriate support in the ‘real’ world sphere if and when required. 

Quality

Currently, no governing body exists to regulate the quality of content included on mental health apps, raising concerns around their credibility. 

Some apps that claim to improve mental health issues are not based on any clinical evidence. Whilst NHS Digital is taking steps to implement regulation, developers currently have free rein over their content and claims. 

A question mark therefore exists over the safety and effectiveness of some mental health apps that offer anything more than resilience tools and signposting. Individuals should be careful to access only those with credible, clinically backed and evidence-based content.

The verdict

For individuals looking for tools to help with mindfulness and relaxation, who would otherwise be using their smartphones for work or mindless surfing, apps can bring clear advantages in terms of promoting good mental health across a wide cross section of society. 

Many people are reluctant to seek traditional forms of help for mental health challenges, perhaps due to the stigma that still exists. For those, apps can provide a more accessible and acceptable way of managing this aspect of their lives to help prevent more serious issues occuring. 

We know that a lot of people are committed to tracking and improving their physical health. Now working on their mental resilience using a digital tool could be exactly what they are looking for. 

Vitality

We’re the first insurance company to reward people for healthy living. We aim to be the best at what we do, offering comprehensive and award-winning Health and Life cover and positively different investments to our members. We believe in the idea of ‘shared value’: we help you take a more active role in managing your own wellness, which can encourage you to develop healthy long-term habits that are good for you, good for us and good for society.

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