Apps for Mental Health - Getting it right.

The leading research journal, Nature dedicated an article to the promise, prevalence, and problems of apps designed to lighten the burden of mental illness:

"Mental Health: There's an App for That" by Emily Anthes.

The article highlights the unique capacity of mobile technology to reach those who would otherwise not get help.  We encounter this directly through our work with ReachOut.com whose dedicated staff reach people on the verge of suicide every day via lifesaving interactions in online forums and chat.

The article also brings attention to the fact that the vast majority of offerings have no evidence behind them and at their worst can actually be harmful (the article cites a bipolar app that suggested users drink hard liquor to improve sleep).  A less dramatic but likewise harmful scenario is the one in which someone tenuously reaches out for help and is discouraged from ever doing so again by a bad experience with a an ill-founded technology.

Working in this area, we believe it's non-negotiable: every development team needs to include qualified mental health professionals who can ensure approaches are evidence based and progressively tested before being offered at large.

In our Well@Work project on workplace wellbeing with Sam Harvey and Helen Christiansen of the Black Dog Institute (who's quoted in the article), our multidisciplinary team consists of programmers, UX/interaction designers, a postdoc in engineering, as well as a clinical and research psychiatrist and psychologist, and four additional researchers in psychology.

Balancing a human-centered engaging professional-build (contingent on, often participatory, user research) with rigorous evidence-based approaches can be painfully challenging in the pitiful timeframe that relentlessly advancing technology allows, but it isn't impossible and examples like Sleep.io, SuperBetter (and by next year, our Well@Work app!) provide proof that it can be done. The beauty is, that if we learn and share how to get it right, we really can have a game-changing positive impact on worldwide mental health.