by Robby Franceschini

February 7, 2019 — From widespread anxiety and depression to alarming suicide rates, emotional suffering is overwhelming American youth, making adolescent mental health a growing public health issue. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children and youth ages 10 to 24 and an estimated 3.1 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 (12.8%) had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. Experts and commentators have proposed a number of solutions to solve this crisis, including digital health tools.

Despite the growing market of digital mental health services and products, few are focusing on adolescents due to perceived issues on tech’s impact on teen mental health as well as consent, reimbursement and other utilization concerns. However, our research and experience shows that these barriers, like many others in digital health, can be and are being overcome.

Mental health tech tools for teens: helpful or harmful?

Recent reports and headlines have raised concerns about the negative consequences of teen use of technology. These include findings that smart phone use may increase anxiety and be associated with depression and suicide-related outcomes. At the same time, teens are utilizing digital resources to access health information, providers and resources, and researchers have noted that depression and smartphone use may not be statistically significant. This aligns with the common definition of today’s adolescents as “digital natives” who are more comfortable using mobile platforms connected with the world. Skeptics might also argue that, with decreased stigma around mental health, more teens are getting screened and diagnosed suggesting that, in tandem with the rise in smart phone use, the two may just be correlated.

Regardless, the evidence of the connection between screen use and anxiety is muddied at best and certain types of digital mental health tools are being used by teens and may hold promise for combatting adolescent mental health issues.

A few bright spots for teens in a crowded digital mental health marketplace

Experts in the digital marketplace have documented over 400 digital mental health products and services, yet few of them include offerings targeted to the needs of adolescents. Barriers keeping these products and services from expanding their offerings to the youth market include perceived issues regarding minor consent, complex reimbursement arrangements, and a focus on treating the seriously mentally ill.

However, after conducting a market scan of products and services for adolescents, BluePath Health has pinpointed several types of solutions that youth are using. These tools include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) apps, such as Anxiety Canada’s MindShift and Headspace, which offer teens access to evidence-based interventions for coping with general anxiety, sleep, and stress problems. For teens looking for mental health providers, TeenCounseling.com offers direct-to-teen counseling at variable rates based on ability to pay. Other mental health providers offer telepsychiatry and teletherapy visits to adolescent patients.

More work remains to be done to tackle adolescent mental health and digital health products and services stand to be part of the solution. BluePath Health can help your organization navigate these tools for teens and will continue to highlight this topic in future posts.