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Clinical review of user engagement with mental health smartphone apps: evidence, theory and improvements

Abstract

The potential of smartphone apps to improve quality and increase access to mental health care is increasingly clear. Yet even in the current global mental health crisis, real-world uptake of smartphone apps by clinics or consumers remains low. To understand this dichotomy, this paper reviews current challenges surrounding user engagement with mental health smartphone apps. While smartphone engagement metrics and reporting remains heterogeneous in the literature, focusing on themes offers a framework to identify underlying trends. These themes suggest that apps are not designed with service users in mind, do not solve problems users care most about, do not respect privacy, are not seen as trustworthy and are unhelpful in emergencies. Respecting these current issues surrounding mental health app engagement, we propose several solutions and highlight successful examples of mental health apps with high engagement. Further research is necessary to better characterise engagement with mental health apps and identify best practices for design, testing and implementation.

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