Experts say mental health apps, while unable to replace in-person counseling, can provide many benefits to students.
Devotionals and student activities have emphasized mental health at BYU since the suicide of a student on campus in December 2018. In September, three new counselors joined the BYU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff, but even with 32 full-time counselors, there is only one for every 1,047 students. Although this is better than the recommendation given by national mental health experts (they suggest universities provide one counselor for every 1,500 students), waitlists at CAPS are long and mental health services remain in high demand.
University Communications announced in an email to students at the beginning of November that BYU is providing students and employees free premium access to the mental health app Sanvello.
According to Klint Hobbs, an assistant clinical professor and psychologist at BYU CAPS, mental health apps can be convenient and helpful in improving mental health.
“Just like physical health apps can be a good way to track progress, learn tips for health or connect with others who want to be healthy, mental health apps can do similar things,” he said.
Unlike in-person counseling, apps are low-cost and always available; however, efficiency varies, depending on both the app and the user, Hobbs said. Compared to a counselor, apps are self-directed and cannot hold users accountable. In addition, the apps are limited in their ability to meet individual users’ needs.
“If you were working with another person, they could adjust rapidly to what you need even if something unexpected comes up,” Hobbs said. “The app can’t do this.”
These apps teach skills and can help with organization and tracking therapy but are not usually as effective as in-person counseling, Hobbs said.
“As for really getting into interpersonal dynamics, relationship distress, family history — some of the deeper aspects of therapy — the mental health apps don’t really access these,” Hobbs said.
Another determining factor in the efficiency of these apps is the consistency of use.
“I’ve seen a number of cases, and I’ve fallen into this, too, where people download the app and then get busy, ultimately not using the app at all,” Hobbs said. “Those who use the app report liking it very much, and those who use it regularly benefit the most.”
Jon Cox, a psychologist, associate clinical professor and group coordinator at CAPS, said consistency and motivation can be difficult for someone who is struggling with mental health difficulties.
Cox said mental health apps are also limited in their structure, content and presentation of content.
“Mental health apps are like reading a textbook or doing a worksheet for a class, while in-person mental health treatment is like having a personal tutor for that class,” Cox said.
Further integration between in-person counseling and online alternatives may develop in the future. Cox said he believes there may be some “blurring of the lines between the two options.”
“Already, therapists are doing Skype sessions, etc.,” Hobbs said. “You’ll likely see more integration between professionals and technology as time goes by.”
CAPS offers multiple resources, including a self-help website called SilverCloud, which also teaches ways to cope with mental illness but goes more in-depth than Sanvello. On the CAPS website, students can find recommendations for breathing and relaxing music and sounds apps as well as resources for relaxation and meditation, sleep apps and various informational links.