Clinically Meaningful Use of Mental Health Apps and its Effects on Depression: Mixed Methods Study

J Med Internet Res. 2019 Dec 20;21(12):e15644. doi: 10.2196/15644.


Background: User engagement is key to the effectiveness of digital mental health interventions. Considerable research has examined the clinical outcomes of overall engagement with mental health apps (eg, frequency and duration of app use). However, few studies have examined how specific app use behaviors can drive change in outcomes. Understanding the clinical outcomes of more nuanced app use could inform the design of mental health apps that are more clinically effective to users.

Objective: This study aimed to classify user behaviors in a suite of mental health apps and examine how different types of app use are related to depression and anxiety outcomes. We also compare the clinical outcomes of specific types of app use with those of generic app use (ie, intensity and duration of app use) to understand what aspects of app use may drive symptom improvement.

Methods: We conducted a secondary analysis of system use data from an 8-week randomized trial of a suite of 13 mental health apps. We categorized app use behaviors through a mixed methods analysis combining qualitative content analysis and principal component analysis. Regression analyses were used to assess the association between app use and levels of depression and anxiety at the end of treatment.

Results: A total of 3 distinct clusters of app use behaviors were identified: learning, goal setting, and self-tracking. Each specific behavior had varied effects on outcomes. Participants who engaged in self-tracking experienced reduced depression symptoms, and those who engaged with learning and goal setting at a moderate level (ie, not too much or not too little) also had an improvement in depression. Notably, the combination of these 3 types of behaviors, what we termed "clinically meaningful use," accounted for roughly the same amount of variance as explained by the overall intensity of app use (ie, total number of app use sessions). This suggests that our categorization of app use behaviors succeeded in capturing app use associated with better outcomes. However, anxiety outcomes were neither associated with specific behaviors nor generic app use.

Conclusions: This study presents the first granular examination of user interactions with mental health apps and their effects on mental health outcomes. It has important implications for the design of mobile health interventions that aim to achieve greater user engagement and improved clinical efficacy.

Keywords: engagement; mHealth; mental health; mobile apps.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Meaningful Use / standards*
  • Mental Health / standards*
  • Middle Aged
  • Mobile Applications / standards*
  • Telemedicine / methods*
  • Young Adult