Mental Illness: New Smartphone Apps Can’t Replace Traditional Therapy, U of G Study Finds

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A woman holds a cellphone and sits a table while gazing out a window

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The digital mental health industry is becoming increasingly popular, but it might not be the answer to the pandemic’s lasting mental health effects, according to a new University of Guelph study.

Dr. Joshua Skorburg, professor in the Department of Philosophy, and master’s student Josephine Yam examined the effectiveness of digital mental health resources such as smartphone apps.

“It’s been striking to learn how widely mental health has affected people during the pandemic,” Skorburg said. “This extends from health-care workers, who are in moral distress as they make life-and-death decisions, to COVID-19 patients, and people who are stuck at home in isolation.”

Technology companies have responded to demand by creating digital mental health tools that claim to detect, diagnose, treat and support individuals with mental health issues.

“As a society, we are increasingly relying on technology to complete various tasks,” he said. “With the current demand for mental health resources far exceeding our supply, it makes sense to outsource to smartphone apps. Our big question was to see if using these apps actually helps.”

Published recently in the journal AJOB Neuroscience, the study found that some of these online applications for treating mental illnesses, like anxiety and mood disorders, are less effective than traditional face-to-face psychotherapy.

“Many of the randomized controlled trials that we looked at compared mental health app users to control groups who listened to music for the same amount of time,” he said. “In these studies, there was often no difference between the groups, with both interventions showing only a slight improvement in user mental health.”

Dr. Joshua Skorburg

While the online platforms can serve more users per day than conventional psychotherapy, there is minimal evidence to suggest they should be used as a replacement.

“Our findings indicate it’s highly unlikely that mental illness can be treated effectively with technological advances,” said Skorburg. “This is not to say that wellness applications should be avoided altogether, but we need to have realistic expectations about their capacity to help.”

Migrating mental health help to online programs also raises ethical concerns, said Skorburg, adding that he worries that some privately funded companies may not always put the patient first.

“Data governance practices are very different in the private versus the public health sector. Company goals are often to

increase their user base and deliver returns for their investors, so we have to question whether their incentives overlap with user well-being.”

Skorburg hopes that his research findings will encourage people to seek evidence-based help for mental health and use online resources as a supplement rather than a substitute.

“We have a tendency in our society to be drawn to innovation, and the mental health sector is no exception. We need to understand that although technology may seem like an easy solution, smartphone applications are not poised to solve all of our problems.”

This work has launched an ongoing project with School of Engineering professor Dr. Graham Taylor and PhD student Kristina Kupferschmidt. The team recently partnered with researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health based in Toronto to forecast demand for mental health resources and how to properly allocate resources in this sector.

This research was funded by the University of Guelph COVID-19 Research Development Catalyst Fund and the College of Arts.

Contact:

Dr. Joshua Skorburg
skorburg@uoguelph.ca