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Mental Health Apps: How to Make an Informed Choice

The number of mental health apps is growing every day. Just knowing what’s available can be a challenge; determining which ones are reliable and actually work is even harder. That’s why the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have worked together to create an assessment framework that will make it easier for people to find the right apps for their specific needs — uniquely designed with the Canadian context in mind.

The guiding principles and assessment criteria set out in the proposed framework will help people across Canada make more informed app decisions. That includes individuals who want to manage their own mental health, healthcare providers looking to make good recommendations to patients and even app developers seeking to improve their products.

FACT: NOT ALL MENTAL HEALTH APPS ARE EQUAL

Some apps have proven mental health benefits. Some make mental health services more accessible by knocking down the barriers of
cost, geography and stigma that keep people from getting support. But other apps are ineffective, potentially unsafe or have serious
privacy/security flaws. The aim of this framework is to help people determine the difference.

  • Evidence base: Is there proof that the app is effective?
  • Gender responsiveness: Does the app consider the needs and preferences of men, women, boys, girls and gender-diverse people?
  • Cultural appropriateness: How appropriate is the app for people from a variety of cultures?

App assessments based on this framework should also be:

  • user-centred: Apps that are designed with and for the intended end user are more likely to meet their needs and expectations.
  • risk-based: The level of risk to a person’s health must be taken into account. An interventional app like a drug-dosing calculator, for example, has more risk and needs a more detailed assessment than a fitness tracker.
  • innovation-friendly: Assessments should not stifle innovation or burden developers. They should encourage the ongoing development and advancement of effective apps.
  • open, transparent and fair: Providing clarity about the nature of the assessment and its outcomes is essential to ensuring its integrity and usefulness.
  • consistent with ethical norms: If an app is part of a research study, it’s necessary to ensure that the guidelines for ethical research involving humans are followed.
  • internationally-informed: With so many apps developed and distributed globally, the assessment process should be aligned with international frameworks to promote greater use.

HOW THE FRAMEWORK WAS DEVELOPED

In November 2016, MHCC and CIHR brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from across Canada: app users and developers, healthcare providers, mental health advocates, people with lived experience of mental health problems and illnesses, policymakers and researchers.

Together, they discussed and reached consensus on the guiding principles and criteria to be included in a made-in-Canada framework for assessing mental health apps. This document reflects the outcomes of that discussion, consolidating some of the agreed-upon wording for ease of use.

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