Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Tips for Doctors Working With Kids, Teens Using Mental Health Apps

Mobile apps for mental health and wellness have changed the way that people—particularly youth—track and care for their mental health. With more than 10,000 mental health–related apps on the market today, how can doctors best help youth navigate this rapidly expanding and evolving terrain?

In an article appearing in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Stephen M. Schueller, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues recommend three actions that doctors can take to support youth using or interested in mental health apps:

1. Understand the content within mental health apps. “Although many mental health apps exist, only a few are widely used,” Schueller and colleagues write. “[C]linicians may find it helpful to learn the content of those apps that are reaching a significant youth audience.” The authors recommend that doctors spend 10 to 30 minutes exploring each popular app, reviewing resources that summarize information about mental health apps (see APA’s App Advisor), and asking young people about which apps they use and how they use them.

2. Explore motivation around the use of mental health apps. Once a person (young and old alike) has downloaded a mental health app, it can be difficult to stick with it, the authors note. Motivational interviewing techniques offer one strategy for helping youth to explore their reasons for using an app. “Clinicians can play an important role in helping youth decide whether to use a [mental health] app and how to get the most out of any [mental health] app they decide to use.”

3. Discuss potential risks of mental health apps and help youth mitigate them. There are risks to using mental health apps, just as there are risks to medications and other treatments. For example, some apps collect and store the user’s mental health information, which could become compromised in the event of a data breech; others may include content that can cause harm if applied inappropriately. “Clinicians can play an important role in understanding when, why, and how youth are engaging with apps,” the authors write. As a result, clinicians can help to determine whether the “apps are causing unintended harms, help youth understand key points within [these] apps, and encourage youth to apply app content to their own situations appropriately.”

Schueller and colleagues continue, “No [mental health] app will work for everyone, and each patient brings unique considerations into the use of a [mental health] app. Clinicians need to not only consider which [mental health] apps might be most relevant to a given young person, but how to assess their use of a [mental health] app once provided to guide future use.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Digital Mental Health Apps Need More Regulatory Oversight.”

(Image: GettyImages/iStock/FilippoBacci)

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