There are quite a lot of apps aimed at improving our mental health. We can now have access to meditation guides, breathing practices, mood trackers, or even professional psychological help from just a smartphone or a tablet. And by all means, it’s a great thing. Technologies allow us to implement techniques that let us care for our mental health into our everyday life as seamlessly as possible.

Yet, there is a downside — our privacy. When we come to a session with a mental health professional, we know that anything we’ll say in this office will remain behind closed doors. Such specialists don’t disclose any details about their patients because that’s one of the primary rules. But what’s the case with all those apps? Are they just as reliable as a mental health professional when it comes to keeping secrets?

This concern deserves attention. We tend to share rather intimate information with mental health apps. And even if it’s just an application that provides us with meditation or breathing techniques, for example, its data still could allow someone to see what issues we’re struggling with by just analyzing our activities. Let alone apps that give us access to professional help.

With Covid-19 and worldwide lockdowns, mental health apps became even more popular. Quarantine made it harder for us to reach face-to-face help. And it made the lives of most of us extremely difficult. So the combination of high levels of stress and a lack of professional support made us seek solutions we can access from our phones. That’s why we want to focus on the reliability of mental health apps — because we use them more often now.

What does the research say?

We don’t want to point fingers at anyone, so we’ll generalize the information. Most mental health apps claim that they won’t give your data to any third-party. This is comforting because in many cases you’ll provide the app with your personal data such as age, gender, and sexual orientation at very least. Often you’d disclose to the service way more information. But as research shows, despite the promise to keep your data in secret some apps would give it to a third-party. Usually, the information is disclosed to social media platforms such as Facebook or Snapchat. And Google doesn’t hesitate to use such information, too.

In addition to the non-disclosure policy, many apps say that they anonymize user data to protect it should something happen. Yet, it’s not a reliable solution because it’s impossible to anonymize information completely. It’s still quite easy to link this data back to a personal profile and start tracking the behavior of this user.

Specialists have tested 36 most popular apps related to mental health and released both for Android and iOS devices. And the research revealed that 33 applications were transferring user data to third-parties. Yet, just a dozen — less than a half of those apps — stated this nuance clearly in their privacy policies. The worst thing here is that two of the third-parties who receive this user data were Facebook and Google. And these are the companies that force developers to state the terms of service as explicitly as possible.

Later, privacy professionals included 56 mental health apps into their research. They found out that those applications often were asking users for permissions that were unnecessary — such as locations, for example. Moreover, apps were encouraging users to share their data with others voluntarily through online communities. 25 of those applications didn’t have a clear privacy policy. So even if users wanted to figure out how their data is being used, they couldn’t do that.

As you can see, we’re at a crossroads here. On the one hand, we need to get psychological support, and apps are convenient. But on the other hand, we risk our privacy by doing so. Let’s figure out how we can solve this problem.

How to protect your privacy?

We’ve mentioned before that health professionals are subject to guidelines that are rather strict. Hospitals and primary care centers process patient information in compliance with such regulations as HIPAA. The government can watch over clinics, hospitals, and doctors. But they’re quite powerless when it comes to apps.

The app development industry doesn’t have many choices for monetization when developers want to keep their mental health applications free or quite cheap. While the intention is good — not every person can afford a paid service — the solution is ugly. To keep themselves afloat, developers have to succumb to feeding skimmed data to third-party platforms to help the latter improve their targeting, ads, and, consequently, income. So if a mental health app is free, it’s very likely that it’s giving away user data.

You could use the best free VPN for Android or iOS but it won’t really keep you safe. While the iNinja VPN app will prevent greedy hands of data collecters from gathering any bits of information they could find outside a mental health app you’re using, it’s not omnipotent. iNinja will just hide your IP address and, as a result, some of your information. So the responsibility for your privacy is mostly on you, unfortunately.

Here’s what you can do. First of all, limit the mental health apps you’re using to a bare minimum. If you can be fine with just one — great. Then, study the terms of use of this application to see if it discloses user data to anyone. Share as little information as possible — don’t give this app access to your location or, for instance, your photos unless it’s absolutely necessary. And if you can avoid creating an account — that’s great.

Finally, go for paid apps if you can afford them. Those will be less likely to sell your data to third-parties because they’re already getting revenue from you paying for the service.