Mental health apps in a college setting: openness, usage, and attitudes

Adam Kern, Victor Hong, Joyce Song, Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Daniel Eisenberg


Background: The ubiquity of smartphones and the development of mental health apps (MHAs) calls for evaluation of consumers’ attitudes towards and usage of MHAs. Due to the increasing demand for mental health services on college campuses, research is especially needed to evaluate MHAs as a potentially viable treatment modality in that setting.
Methods: The study team developed survey questions related to MHAs, added these to the Healthy Minds Study, and used Qualtrics as the platform. The participants were 741 students, age 18 and older, from a large Midwest public university. Students could answer a varying number of multiple choice questions based on embedded display logic, and the survey required 20–25 minutes for most participants to complete. Based on embedded display logic in the survey and how questions were answered, students could receive anywhere from 1–20 questions. Questions were primarily categorical (e.g., “Yes”, “Maybe”, “No”), with the remaining questions in free response format. The survey was fielded in April, 2016.
Results: 26.1% of respondents were open to using an MHA yet only 7.3% had used an MHA. 9.0% of respondents preferred to use an MHA versus seeing a mental health professional. 13.2% of respondents felt that MHAs do have an evidence base. 23.8% of users felt that MHAs helped with their mental health. Those who reported receiving mental health services within the past 12 months were significantly more open to using MHAs than those who had not received services. Convenience, immediate availability, and confidentiality were common reasons for interest in MHAs.
Conclusions: There is interest in, but limited usage, of MHAs among university students, providing evidence of MHAs as a potentially untapped treatment modality for this population. Further research could help assess how best to integrate this technology into the university and college mental health system.