Mental health apps: help when you need it

August 28, 2015 Michelle T. Toshima

Millions of Americans suffer from some form of mental health problems. It is estimated that in the U.S., about 40 million adults suffer from anxiety, about 20 million adults suffer from depression, and another 8 million suffer from PTSD. Many more people, about 78 million, report suffering from high levels of stress with poor health in self or a family member being the primary reason for the stress. Unfortunately research consistently shows that two-thirds of these people do not seek out treatment for their problems. And those who are interested in help often run into barriers that prevent them from receiving treatment. Barriers can include lack of or inadequate health insurance, lack of mental health resources in rural or impoverished areas or the stigma of getting help for mental health problems.

Apps could help

Ever since the arrival of “smart” phones, there has been a proliferation of apps available either for free or for a nominal fee. It has not been until more recently, however, that apps have been developed with mental health applications. Now there are literally hundreds of apps focused on helping people with anxiety, depression, PTSD, stress and other symptoms.

Most people that download an app quit using an app after the first week. Many people quit apps because they simply are not interested in tracking behaviors or information about themselves as a stepping stone to change. The reality is that making changes to one’s behavior is hard.

In April 2015, The Psychiatry Advisor listed 10 mental health apps. These apps were developed with input from mental health professionals and have been shown to be helpful:

  • Intellicare: A suite of 12 “mini” apps designed to help you deal with common causes of depression and anxiety (e.g., sleep problems, social isolation, lack of activity, obsessive thinking).
  • Equanimity: Designed to help you time, track, and journal about your meditation practice.
  • Code Blue: Designed to help teens/young people who suffer from depression or bullying to mobilize support quickly.
  • Breathe2Relax: Teaches you how to use diaphragmatic breathing to relax.
  • Lantern: Provides help for anxiety combining unlimited messaging from trained coaches and mobile tools
  • PTSD Coach: Provides information about PTSD, tools to screen and track symptoms, and direct links to support and help. 
  • Optimism: Designed to help you monitor your mental health daily by helping you track your thoughts and feelings.
  • Talkspace: Provides unlimited messaging therapy, 24/7, from over 200 licensed therapists.
  • Big White Wall: Provides 24/7 access to an online community of people looking for support. The communications are guided by trained professionals.
  • SAM: Self Help for Anxiety Management: Designed to help you understand what causes your anxiety and provides tools to help you manage the anxiety.

Limitations of apps for mental health

One concern about mental health apps is user privacy. Many apps assure users that their information is private, encrypted and stored in a secure matter, but not every app guarantees that level of security. In addition, web and mobile based apps are not immune from hacks and attacks. Accounts could also be compromised if complex passwords are not required or limits to password guesses are not enforced.

Self-help tools are helpful only to the degree that people are motivated and disciplined enough to fully engage with the tool. Many people will download apps but only look at them once or twice. The advantage of in-person help is that the therapeutic relationship often provides a level of accountability that doesn’t exist in the world of apps.

Self-help tools are an excellent starting point for many people but it’s important to remember that apps are not a replacement for a mental health professional. There are many instances where close guidance and attention of a trained professional is needed. In those cases, working with a psychologist or other mental health professional should be a first line of treatment with mental health apps serving as a supplement to in-person therapy.

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