Mental Health Apps Are Not As Private As You Think
Mental health apps have been in demand for a while now, but since the pandemic, their popularity grew by over 500%. I downloaded and used a few myself — mainly to help me fall asleep after a stressful day at work.
However, these apps aren’t as trustworthy as you think. Mental health apps secretly pass on your data to their business partners behind your back. It’s not just a few basic facts either: the shared data often contains your address, full name, occupation, marital status, symptoms you’re experiencing, daily moods, and a lot more.
Talk about trust issues, huh? Luckily, there are some ways you can limit what the apps know about you and still get the help you need. We’ll show you how.
How Mental Health Apps Work and Why They Matter
Mental health apps can improve your psychological well-being. Their services range from breathing lessons and guided meditation, to one-on-one chats with volunteers or therapists. This lets you get help for anything you need, whether that’s PTSD, depression, anxiety, or addiction.
The most appealing aspect of mental health apps is their price and comfort of use. You don’t have to leave the house to see a psychologist — they’re right there on your phone!
Best of all, they cut the cost of therapy by a huge margin. Many mental health apps are even available for free, which makes therapy accessible to those who would never be able to afford it otherwise.
The Change in Mental Health After the Pandemic
If you thought the queues to see a therapist were long before 2020, it’s nothing compared to the post-pandemic mental health crisis.
Country-wide lockdowns forced us to stay at home and made meeting up with loved ones a chargeable offense. A Statista study showed that this led to an increase of 20% in the number of people reporting a decline in their mental health.
The strain of COVID-19 also pushed suicide as the second cause of teenage deaths. This put the already-suffering mental health industry under a tremendous amount of pressure.
The suffering of mental health impacted the global economy too, costing over $1 trillion every year in lost productivity (according to WHO). This is due to low motivation, self-doubt, lack of energy, substance abuse, and increased demand for sick days, which reduces the workforce in businesses.
Before You Sign Up: Main Privacy Issues With Therapy Apps
I often don’t bother reading through Privacy Policies if my mental health is suffering and I need help. I simply assume I can trust the developers, considering I give them access to my private thoughts. I was wrong.
Mental health apps don’t fall under the supervision of any governing body, despite providing medical help. This means that nothing stops them from storing your personal information and sharing what you’re struggling with among partners. A recent “Privacy Not Included” guide created by Mozilla shows that mental health apps make the most of this situation by blurring the privacy line in their policies.
Mozilla found that over 75% of mental health apps don’t satisfy basic security requirements. This includes:
- approving weak passwords.
- giving business partners free access to your data.
- sending targeted ads.
- poorly-written T&Cs.
Surprisingly, the research named leading therapy apps, like Calm and Headspace, as the main perpetrators. As you probably guessed, the apps themselves purport to be privacy-conscious.
I also analyzed multiple findings from studies published in Consumer Reports’ Digital Labs, Wall Street Journal, JAMA Network Open, and PsychReg. Each one showed similar results, proving that a majority of seemingly private therapy apps monetize your struggles.
What Data Do Mental Health Apps Log?
Mental health apps actively collect all kinds of information, including:
- 🚩 Full name.
- 🚩 Address.
- 🚩 Current location.
- 🚩 Age.
- 🚩 Gender.
- 🚩 Nationality.
- 🚩 Phone number.
- 🚩 Device type.
- 🚩 Mood diary.
- 🚩 Mental state.
It doesn’t stop with data collection though. I was concerned to see that therapy apps cooperate with Facebook and Google in user data exchange.
While Facebook maintains that it never looks into specific details, it’s enough for the platform to see that you’re using a mental health app in the first place. The social media giant then uses that information to target you with tailored promotions, like prescription-free sleeping pills or herbal anxiety relief. The same goes for Google — even though it has slightly less compromising privacy policies than Facebook.
Aside from sending your data to advertisers, mental health apps work with other third-party businesses, like data analysts, marketing companies, and data brokers. Any information you put in is automatically circulated between all partnered companies with access to the app’s database.
Why HIPAA’s Regulations Don’t Apply To Mental Health Apps
HIPAA (aka Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is a law that requires all healthcare providers to keep your information secure and private. So, when you visit a psychologist and ask for help with managing your depression, you can be sure this information will stay just between the two of you.
You’d think mental health apps would also fall under the HIPAA umbrella… they don’t. The act doesn’t apply as therapy apps aren’t considered a part of the medical field. Because of that, it comes down to the developer’s choice whether they want to comply with data protection laws or not.
How to Stop Therapy Apps From Invading Your Privacy
Even though it’s impossible to fully stop mental health apps from collecting your data, you can limit what they get:
- Use a throwaway email. Very often, therapy apps need you to provide an email address and/or a name before you can access resources. To protect that information, you can sign up with a throwaway email that’s not linked to any other account. That way, you’ll avoid linking your mental health disclosures with your social media profiles and main email address.
- Be stingy with your details. Never offer more information than absolutely necessary. Pay attention to which fields are mandatory to set up an account and leave anything else empty. This will reduce the amount of data mental health apps collect and share.
- Opt out. Before you start using the app, see if you can adjust the privacy and security settings. Many apps actually let you opt out of certain data collection points. The setting might be tricky to find as it goes against the app’s interest, but it’s worth looking for.
- Use a VPN. While VPNs can’t prevent apps from tracking you once you log into a service, they do encrypt your traffic while in transit, which protects you from surveillance and hacking attempts.
Can You Stop Mental Health Apps From Collecting Your Data?
The only way to protect your data as you use therapy apps is with a VPN. Without a VPN, any data you send to mental health apps stays visible to prying eyes, like advertisers or even hackers.
Connecting to a VPN server applies heavy encryption to your traffic, making your personal information unattainable to third parties.
In other words, a VPN’s job is to make you invisible. That way, mental health apps can’t see your real IP address or your location, which already protects you a great deal. It’ll also stop any lesser-known dodgy therapy apps from making their way into your device to steal additional information.
Get Private Internet Access to increase your privacy when using mental health apps.
PIA comes with the toughest encryption protocols that are even used by the military and the government. This gives you truly unbreakable anonymity whenever you want to meditate in peace. The VPN also stops your traffic from leaking your details, even if you’re using unstable public Wi-Fi. Better still, you can test PIA with therapy apps risk-free with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
To Use Mental Health Apps or Not — That Is The Question
Knowing how mental health apps take liberties when it comes to data protection, it may seem like an obvious choice to ditch them altogether. That’s most definitely not the point. If Headspace or Happify helps you get through your days, carry on using them — but tweak your privacy settings and get a VPN to keep your data safe.
What apps are good for mental health?
There’s no right or wrong answer here — any app that you find helpful is good for your mental health. With such a huge selection on Google Play, Apple’s App Store, and Amazon’s marketplace, you can always find something for your struggles.
The most popular apps include Headspace, Calm, BetterHelp, Finch, InnerHour, iBreathe, Better Stop Suicide, Happify, and 7Cups. Each app claims to help you become your better self by providing various management techniques. These include meditation, breathing exercises, minigames, journaling, CBT, tackling addiction, and more. All you need to do is test drive them and see which one suits you the best.
A word of caution though — don’t take anything these apps say as the be-all, end-all. Even though some were developed in cooperation with experts, they don’t deliver the personalized care and treatment you may require. They also don’t have the ability to analyze your symptoms, so you shouldn’t use them to reach a diagnosis.
Are there any free mental health apps?
Yes, there are hundreds of free mental health apps you can take advantage of without spending a cent. From browsing through forums and app charts, 7Cups, What’s Up?, Quit Now!, Better Stop Suicide, and iBreathe are the most popular.
Don’t be discouraged if the app you wanted to use isn’t free. Many paid therapy services (such as Headspace or Calm) let you set up a free account or offer a free trial, so you can still try their features without a charge.
What is the best app to manage stress?
The most recommended (and my favorite) stress management apps are:
- iBreathe: Offers simple and short deep breathing exercises that help you minimize the effects of stress. It’s so easy you can do it at home, work, restaurant, or even on the go.
- Headspace: Teaches you how to make the most of meditation to find the calm in the middle of the storm. Whether you need quick breathing help or a longer course to manage stress, you’ll find many exercises geared towards your needs.
- Calm: Has meditation lessons aimed at specific issues you might be struggling with like insomnia, stress, or low self-esteem. You’ll also find bedtime stories read by many popular celebrities, like Harry Styles, Regé-Jean Page, and Stephen Fry. Better yet, it has a whole section dedicated to kids and teens.
- Personal Zen: Offers a series of minigames to take your mind off stress and help you breathe. With regular use, the app claims to equip you with the resilience needed to focus on the positives instead of the negatives and avoid stress altogether.
- Squeeze and Shake: Lets you take out your frustration on a rubber duck in your phone. It’s satisfying and very effective at getting it all out. Just make sure to not break your phone in the process!
Is Headspace a good mental health app?
Headspace is an award-winning meditation app that uses various mindfulness techniques. Its aim is to reduce stress, encourage being in the present, improve sleep quality, and increase focus. It’s very easy to use and, with a pair of earphones, you can use it anywhere.
However, keep in mind it collects a large amount of your data. A PsychReg study found that Headspace actually has access to your most vulnerable information, like physical location, social media profiles, and marital status. It’s one of the most privacy-invasive among the tested apps.
Luckily, you can opt out of (most of) the data collection through the security settings — and remember to keep app permission to the bare minimum if you’re planning on using it. You can also rely on Private Internet Access to increase your privacy when using mental health apps.