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Mental health apps may not be as private as you think

Posted at 12:05 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 12:05:03-04

(WXYZ) — This past year has been unlike any other, filled with stress, anxiety and sadness for millions of us. So, perhaps it's not surprising that many people are downloading mental health apps for support.

Consumer Reports is warning people that sharing deeply personal, sensitive information on some virtual platforms might not be as private as you think.

The apps are becoming increasingly popular and offer a range of options, from guided meditations to appointments with a licensed therapist.

But, mental health apps aren't covered by the same medical privacy laws like HIPAA, that protect the information you share with a doctor in person, and even when HIPAA rules to apply, they may not cover all the data an app collects.

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“What companies tell you about what they do with your data is often pretty vague and confusing and it’s usually buried in privacy policies, where it can be hard to find," Consumer Reports Tech Editor Thomas Germain said.

Consumer Reports looked at several popular apps and found that many of them sent information to third parties such as Facebook and Google. This kind of data is often used for advertising or other business research, and while it's a common practice, it may not be something you expect from apps that deal with mental health.

“We didn’t see these apps sharing details about your condition or what you’re telling your therapist. But they may be letting other companies know you’re using a mental health app," Germain said.

Consumer Reports said you should know if and when your data is being shared.

“If you’re using a mental health app, be sure it’s clear about who will be administering your care. It’s worth seeking out licensed mental health professionals, and there are plenty of services that will connect you with them," Germain said.

CR said there are other ways to receive mental health care or teletherapy besides an app. Consult with your primary care physician for recommendations.