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Students, Mental Health Apps and the Mental Health-Privacy Tradeoff

mental health apps

Across college campuses all over the nation, students struggle with an array of mental health issues. By some accounts, 60 percent have significant anxiety problems. Likewise, roughly 40 percent of college students have significant depression. But despite these statistics, only about 15 percent of students seek help. With limited mental health services and counselors, many students have difficulty finding the help they need. In addition, the social stigma that comes with having mental health issues can also serve as a deterrent. But this is rapidly changing with the rise of mental health apps on campuses today.

Students and therapists alike welcome the introduction of mental health apps. Given the resource constraints present, mental health apps offer a means to better reach, educate, and manage these students. In fact, many institutions are encouraging the use of these mental health apps as routine services from oncoming students. But increasingly, there are some serious concerns in regard to health information privacy. While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) legislation might be assumed to protect health information privacy on these apps, this is not necessarily the case. And because of these potential health information privacy violations, many are calling for new systems and structures to replace them.

The Upside to Mental Health Apps for Students

Research has supported that mental health apps are beneficial for college students. While not as advantageous as in-person therapist services, these health apps offer benefits nonetheless. Specifically, these mental health apps offer self-assessments, reality checks, and educational information. They also provide videos, interactive features, and a number of courses and skills-training sessions. There are even activity and mood monitoring services in some mental health apps. Given the constraints on accessing mental health services otherwise, these apps fill a serious void currently.

More than a dozen of these mental health apps now exist for students on college campuses today. TAO Connect is a popular one that professionals at the University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center developed. It is now offered at more than 150 college campuses. Another is YOU at College, which was developed in 2014 by Grit Digital Health. It now boasts over 40,000 accounts among 55 college campuses. Clearly, the popularity of these mental health apps is increasing, which is why health information privacy concerns are also rising.

health information privacy
There is a need to be cautious about where people ask for help.

Health Information Privacy Concerns

Because mental health apps collect and provide medical information, one might initially expect these to fall under HIPAA regulations. But HIPAA actually only pertains to health information privacy related to provider use. In other words, HIPAA covers health information privacy when used by a medical provider, institution or insurer. However, self-reported data and those communicated by consumers to other parties do not apply to HIPAA regulations. Understanding this, mental health apps often do not provide any significant health information privacy protections for students.

When it comes to mental health apps, the majority to not provide guarantees that they will comply with HIPAA standards. In addition, many have relinquished some rights to the developers of mental health apps. This means that demographic information, statistical data, and even personal contacts may be at-risk. A recent study showed that 95 percent of individuals in a major health survey could be identified using machine learning. And without health information privacy protections in place, such data could be sold to an array of third parties. Advertising agencies, marketing firms, and even insurance companies are among those interested in such data. And without HIPAA offering adequate health information privacy oversight, students are at high-risk when using these mental health apps.

Time for Change in Health Information Privacy Laws

Without a doubt, technologies and innovations have surpassed existing HIPAA laws and regulations. Today, we have fitness trackers, social media data, pregnancy apps, and even more that collect and store all types of health data. Facebook recently came out with its own Preventative Health tool, which also collects consumer health data. And the information currently recorded by consumers in personal health records is at-risk if not used by a medical provider. Notably, there is a limit in health information privacy protections in relation to these activities. And mental health apps now represent another such area where there is a need for health information privacy protections. Clearly, there is a need for change in health information privacy laws given these rapidly evolving developments.

mental health apps for students cartoon
How risky are mental health apps?

While the U.S. has lagged behind in this regard, Europe and some states are taking action. Europe has adopted stricter health information privacy protections under its General Data Protection Regulation. Similarly, the California Consumer Privacy Act has also invoked stronger health information privacy rules. In essence, both of these shift protections onto the type of data being considered rather than the user. When it comes to mental health apps, these types of regulations make logical sense. While the potential benefits of mental health apps are encouraging, health information privacy risks remain substantial. Without question, it’s time to adequately address these risks be so that these vulnerable individuals can have the protections they deserve.

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