Mental health: Doctor issues warning over mindfulness apps offering ‘quick fix’

Doctors are warning about the risks of relying on smartphone mindfulness apps, offering meditation and breathing exercises, for your mental health.

Key points:

  • Dr Grundy says quick-fix pledges can be damaging to those seeking help
  • Large number of app creators have unclear backgrounds in mental health
  • Calls for regulation of app creators, as well as app stores like Apple, Google

The apps have become some of the most popular downloads, offering everything from improved creativity to pain relief.

But Dr Quinn Grundy, a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, has been investigating some of the apps that are among the most popular of their kind.

“We noticed that apps are promising consumers quick, easy, effortless and often instant solutions, to what they’re framing as their health issues,” she said.

“So we’d see things like, ‘in just ten minutes you’ll sleep better’, or ‘just listen, the app will do the rest and your anxiety will be gone’, or ‘track your mood everyday and your symptoms will improve’.”

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And she said that such quick-fix pledges could be damaging to those seeking help.

“If your app has promised that you’ll get better really easily and really quickly and you don’t, consumers shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong with them,” Dr Grundy said.

“Or that their mental health can’t be treated.”

While the apps tout their healing credentials, only a small percentage of them have been created by universities or healthcare professionals.

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“So there was a couple from the government that we looked at, the Department of Defence for example,” Dr Grundy said.

“And a few from some prominent mental health organisations — and I would say that we had the most confidence in those.

“But largely they are private companies or individuals who may or may not have any background in mental health.”

‘More regulation needed across the board’

Many of the apps offer a small amount of their content for free, after that users are asked to subscribe, or pay an upfront fee to access further content.

While that business structure has become common to many types of apps, Dr Grundy said those downloading mental health apps were already vulnerable.

“We would argue that mental health consumers are perhaps in a more vulnerable position to things like targeted advertising, or in-app purchases or a subscription model,” she said.

“So for example we saw apps that would be about anxiety or depression, but at the bottom you have these banner ads advertising weight loss products.”

She said that app creators, as well as moderators of online stores, needed to face increased regulation.

“Although developers are often the target of regulation, there’s some big players — the app stores like Apple and Google are really the de facto gatekeepers at the moment,” she said.

“They’re the ones that decide whether an app comes to market, but there’s very little regulatory attention on them.”

‘App ended up increasing my anxiety’

One PHD student said she started using a mindfulness app last year to help her with some “bouts of anxiety and pretty poor response to stress”.

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“So I decided to download one of these mental health apps,” she said.

The app she chose was one that was highly-rated in the app store, however it soon began increasing her anxiety.

“So you would input what you did on a daily basis into the app. So for example, the app would ask you to rate on a sort of scale how you felt you’d done in certain areas of the day,” she said.

“For example, had you exercised, had you eaten healthy, had you done any relaxation techniques.

“If I missed out on a few activities in a day, the app would actually rate my day and it would sort of tell me that I hadn’t had a good day.”

The student said she no longer used a mindfulness app, and recommended using any of these programs in conjunction with professional advice.

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