Mental Health App Data: Be Careful How You Use Them

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Using a mental health app, like this person using a phone, comes with risks.

With ever-increasing frequency, the statement, “There’s an app for that!” is accurate. These days we can manage everything from our finances to our diets to our exercise to even our sleep with an app on our devices. According to some sources, there are nearly 9 million apps available worldwide, so it only makes sense that a consumer would be able to find a mental health app with relative ease.

Apps are designed to make our lives easier by saving us time and keeping us informed of things that are helpful to be aware of, such as our bank account balance, the number of calories we’ve consumed that day or whether or not we could use more sleep. Unfortunately, every app – whether it’s a mental health app or some other type – is wholly dependent on data in order to function properly.

When data is involved, security becomes part of the equation. Unfortunately, some security measures fail to do just that: measure up to what people tend to expect when trusting an app with sensitive information. Now comes news that when people make use of a mental health app, their data may not be completely protected or even used properly in some situations.

SoCal Empowered is a forward-looking organization, and we’re all for making use of technology when it helps someone improve their mental health. However, in some situations, using a mental health app may not be the best step to take. We’re going to dive into this troubling article below and offer some input as to what you can do if you or someone you love is struggling with mental health.

About the Mental Health App Article

The article at issue was published in Yahoo Finance. The foundation of the piece discussed how, as we have above, apps are becoming progressively more prevalent. Another variable to consider is that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire concept of telehealth was transformed from relative niche status to wholly mainstream. That change also swept into the world of mental health.

As such, you can find a mental health app that deals with just about anything imaginable. There are generalized mental health apps and those that deal with a specific problem or set of problems. Like most other industries or areas of focus, you can basically find almost whatever you’re looking for in a mental health app.

Given this prevalence and growth, which we will detail further below, data protection becomes paramount in importance. Obviously, any information dealing with a person’s mental health is as sensitive as any data pertaining to physical health, and federal laws such as HIPAA do govern data privacy in some of these situations, but not others as you’ll see below.

The most troubling portion of the article was that it looked closely at 27 different mental health apps. Specifically, the authors looked at whether or not these 27 mental health apps met the data protection standards put forth by Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included online buyer’s guide. Based on those criteria, only two of the 27 mental health apps met their data protection and privacy standards.

How and Why Is This Happening?

Generally speaking, mental health app data has been treated in the past in much the same way as other online or app-driven data: It’s been used as a commodity that could be sold to marketers for research and targeting purposes. This problem is more related to market intel than it is to data breaches, but whether a person’s data is stolen or sold, the result is the same and it’s troubling at best. This is particularly true when considering the fact that the data involves a person’s mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, as the article states, HIPAA does not necessarily have jurisdiction over some of these situations, either. That’s because of a loophole that only protects communication and information shared between a person and his or her healthcare provider. Based on legal technical language, many a mental health app is not considered a healthcare provider, but rather another type of entity that doesn’t fall under HIPAA.

How Big Is the Mental Health App Market?

Perhaps making the situation even worse is the reality that the mental health app market has been, is continuing to and will most likely continue to explode in size and scope. As of now, there are estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000 mental health apps available worldwide. According to Grand View Research, the mental health app market generated approximately $6.3 billion in revenue in 2023. That market is expected to grow by more than 15 percent every year between now and 2030.

It’s likely that most people are not aware of the fact that the mental health app market is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is, and it’s not going anywhere, so when people think about using a mental health app or apps, they should be aware of the realities that exist with them. The bottom line is that no form of data is every completely, 100-percent safe, no matter the protections that are put in place.

However, there’s a difference between a data breach and selling data, and everyone should take some time to learn more about that aspect of things before they download a mental health app and begin sharing sensitive and deeply personal information.

Ideas to Help Protect Your Data When Downloading a Mental Health App

Fortunately, those who are willing to put in a bit of time and effort can take steps to protect themselves when downloading a mental health app. PC Magazine published an article last year that provides five steps geared towards protecting your data when downloading any type of app. These steps include:

  1. Read the app’s data collection policy.
  2. Search for keywords within that policy such as “sale” or “sell.”
  3. Check the privacy details for the app in the app store.
  4. Check your own device’s permission levels for data.
  5. Delete unused apps from your device.

Will this resolve every issue? Of course not, but it’s always worth a few minutes to take a look at what you’re getting into before you trust software with sensitive information. If you find language regarding your data that troubles you, do not download the mental health app and try to find some other way to help yourself.

How SoCal Empowered Can Help

As we mentioned above, the team of Orange County mental health professionals at SoCal Empowered is not at all against the use of a mental health app or any other type of technology that can help someone. We would just like people to be careful with their choices so that their data is not compromised and their situations are not made worse for other reasons.

For a lot of people who struggle with relatively minor or manageable mental health problems, a mental health app could be helpful. For those who are really struggling, more help is likely needed. That’s where we come in, as we provide residential mental health treatment for those who require professional intervention in order to regain the peace of mind that everyone deserves.

If this includes you or a loved one, we encourage you to contact our team at SoCal Empowered today. We’ll help you decide on the best course of action, whether that involves a stay with us or not.


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