Mildly depressed or simply stressed, people are tapping apps for mental health care

It might be surprising to think about browsing for therapists and ordering up mental health care the way you can peruse a menu on Grubhub or summon a car on Lyft.

But over the last decade, digital access to therapy has become increasingly common, in some cases replacing the traditional model of in-person weekly sessions between a therapist and client.

Apps for mental health and wellness range from mood trackers, meditation tools and journals to therapy apps that match users to a licensed professional. My team’s research focuses on therapy apps that work by matching clients to a licensed professional.

As a social work researcher, I am interested in understanding how these apps affect clients and practitioners. My research team has studied the care that app users receive. We have talked to therapists who use apps to reach new clients. We’ve also analyzed app contracts that mental health professionals sign, as well as the agreements clients accept by using the apps.

Real questions persist about how apps are regulated, how to ensure user privacy and care quality and how remote therapy can be reimbursed by insurance. While those debates continue, people are regularly using apps to connect to therapists for help with emotional and mental struggles. And through these apps, therapists are interacting with people who may never have considered therapy before.

A ready-made market

In the first year of the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety increased by 25% worldwide. In a June 2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, compared to only 19% in 2018.

The old model of therapy, in which therapists and patients sat face to face, was already out of reach for many. In fact, mental health apps are a response to the demand from clients seeking more accessible therapy services.

The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged both trends – the growing need for mental health care and using technology to access it. For existing mental health clients, stay-at-home orders closed clinics and therapists’ offices to in-person visits, resulting in an unprecedented shift to online access to therapy.

How matching apps work

Consumer mental health platforms like Better Help, Alma and TalkSpace match clients to licensed therapy providers. With advertising on television, across social media channels and on highway billboards, the apps promote flexibility, convenience and the potential to receive support with slogans like “You deserve to be happy” or “Feeling better starts with a single call.”

When app users enter a platform’s online space, its proprietary software offers a digital dashboard and communication tools. These platforms also promise instant access to a professional therapist, immediate responsiveness from them as well as anonymity.

App users choose a therapist by reviewing a list of providers accompanied by thumbnail…

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