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Why Mental Health Apps Need to Take Privacy More Seriously

 |  December 4, 2023

By: Eugenie Park and Darrell M. West (Brookings Tech Tank)

In recent years, there has been a significant uptick in the utilization of mental health apps, experiencing a notable 54.6% growth between 2019 and 2021. This surge is likely tied to the increased prevalence of diagnosed mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the adoption of social distancing measures, which reduced access to traditional in-person psychotherapeutic services.

Within the realm of mental health improvement apps, distinct categories have surfaced. The first category encompasses apps guiding users through practices designed to relax the mind, such as meditation or deep breathing. Notable examples include Calm, boasting an estimated $355 million in revenue in 2022, and Headspace, which generated around $235 million. The second category, exemplified by platforms like BetterHelp, involves connecting individuals with licensed therapists and facilitating treatment through asynchronous text messaging sessions on the app. Lastly, a more recent category employs AI tools to mimic mental health professionals, with examples like Elomia, Wysa, and Woebot functioning as automated chatbots responding to patient comments.

While these apps undeniably enhance the convenience of mental health services, they also amass substantial amounts of sensitive data, giving rise to serious concerns regarding patient privacy. In May, Mozilla released a report scrutinizing the privacy policies of 32 mental health apps, with 22 receiving a “privacy not included” warning label. This designation indicates violations in two or more areas, including problematic data use, unclear user control over data, questionable data protection records, and failure to meet Mozilla’s Minimum Security Standards. Privacy apprehensions have escalated to policymakers, as evidenced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filing a complaint in March 2023 against BetterHelp. The complaint alleged the disclosure of customer emails, IP addresses, and intake health questionnaire information to Meta, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for advertising purposes, contradicting BetterHelp’s assurances of confidential data use solely for service-related functions.