Most of the UK's Recommended Depression Apps Haven't Been Tested

Patients are increasingly turning to online treatments at the suggestion of the NHS, but recommended apps aren't tested.

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Oct 13 2015, 11:00am

Image: Jhaymesisviphotography/Flickr

England is experiencing what has been called a "hidden mental health crisis," with one in 10 people seeking treatment for mental illness waiting more than a year to get help through its public health service.

The results can be devastating: thousands of people have attempted suicide while on the National Health Service waiting list treatment. To bridge that gap, patients are increasingly turning to online treatments at the suggestion of the NHS, but as many as 85 percent of the apps it recommends for depression are not clinically proven to have any effect, according to a new study in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health.

Researchers surveyed 14 apps dedicated to depression and anxiety out of the 27 apps listed by the NHS for mental health issues, and found only four provide any evidence of effectiveness. Simon Leigh of the University of Liverpool and Steve Flatt of the Liverpool Psychological Therapies Unit Community Interest Company, who co-authored the report, are calling for the NHS remove the apps from the library until they're more effectively evaluated.

Leigh said the researchers were skeptical of some of the suggested treatments, including one 99-cent app that asks users to put their hands in the air for extended periods of time to cure depression. Still, he said online apps can pose a great solution for many underserved patients, as long as they are "well-informed, scientifically credible, peer reviewed and evidence-based."

"It is quite hard for many people to get seen, and there are a lot of people who don't want to be seen face to face, so if you could find a good app or series of good apps it could help people who are struggling to be treated who have a high risk of self harm or suicide," Leigh said.

The four apps that offered evidence of effectiveness were Workguru, Happy Healthy, Big White Wall, and Moodscope, but of those, only Big White Wall and Moodscope used NHS-accredited performance metrics. Leigh said the NHS does not offer any explanation why any of the 14 apps were included in the list of approved apps.

"There was no clear guidance of how these were chosen," he said. "It wasn't nice methodology where it's very transparent. There was no real reason for explaining why some apps are provided."

Leigh said future research could look into why some apps were more effective than others, and see if they can provide a proven alternative to in-person talk therapy.

"We can see if these apps can do better than what the NHS provides at a lower cost," he said. "We can look at potential benefits and savings from shifting people on waiting lists to these apps nationwide—see how many people we can triage off the waiting list system and move them into effective care."