Guides

Pros and Cons of Mental Health Apps

April 7, 2019

According to a study done by Monash University in Australia, more than half of Americans own a smartphone, and 83% of those people don’t leave their home without it. In addition to the basic call and texts functions, we all have our go-to apps on our smartphone. First it’s all the socials—Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook—then Uber/Lyft, a banking app if your bank offers one, and maybe a few games to get through a long commute.

There’s something else you can consider adding to your applications arsenal: mental health apps (MHAs). This kind of application saw an increasing presence in the app store, boasting functions of improved mental health through relaxation exercises and stress management skills.

While these mental health apps may seem like the next frontier for psychology in this highly digital age, there are some things a potential user should keep in mind before downloading. Here are some things to think about:

  • Pros of MHAs
  • Cons of MHAs
  • Some apps to try

The same study done by Monash University concluded that 76% of survey respondents “would be interested in using their mobile phone for self-management and self-monitoring of mental health if the service were free.” So the population seems to be interested in giving one of the 15,000 mental health apps out there a try. Read on to find out why or why not you should look into using one as well.

person holding iPhone
Check out some of the upsides to mental health apps.

Pros of MHAs

Most people who suffer from anxiety and other mood-related disorders don’t seek professional help—enter MHAs.

Use at Home

If someone were to seek therapy for anxiety, depression, or similar disorders, it’s not unlikely he or she may face some kind of waiting list for a therapist. Similarly, therapy can be expensive, especially if the office doesn’t take your insurance. Mental health apps are either free or very low-cost.

Since so much of the population uses a smartphone—and the average user checks his or her phone as often as 150 times a day—it can be worthwhile to store your mental health progress in something that is such a part of daily life.

Whereas therapy requires scheduling a block of time weekly or biweekly, you can schedule a session with your iPhone or Android whenever you please. You could schedule it for the same time every day, or it could be more flexible based on an ever-changing schedule. In addition, whenever you decide you can engage with the app of your choosing, you have the luxury of doing it in the privacy of your own home. No long drive or waiting room required.

It’s not uncommon for symptoms to pop up in the later hours of the night, when access to a therapist or a trustworthy person to talk to is limited. But your iPhone operates 24/7 as long as it still has some juice. You can open your mental health app of choice whenever symptoms arise and engage in an exercise to help you feel better before bed.

Since we don’t leave the house without our smartphones, it’s possible to use a mental health app while not at home in a pinch. Whether you’re traveling or just super busy, you can pop in some headphones and work on a few exercises to help boost your mental health.

In addition, one study showed the potential benefits of using MHAs on college campuses, which are often limited in mental health services.

High Patient Engagement

A study done by Pooja Chandrashekar of Harvard University theorized that MHA users have some kind of intrinsic motivation to use the mental health app at regular intervals in order to progress in treatment. Chandrashekar said this can come from the fact that the user is the one responsible for his or her own improvement. That internal drive can be boosted by usage reminder notifications, another discrete but effective smartphone feature.

Also, apps offers the allure and sleekness of technological advancements. These technologies may be more appealing to certain participants over traditional therapy.

Anonymity and Consistency

Mental health services on your smartphone are completely confidential. While therapists are obligated to keep your information private, mental health apps don’t require directly communicating with another person, which may increase anxiety or similar symptoms for which someone may be seeking treatment.

While therapists and psychiatrists are highly trained professionals, there is always potential for slight variability from one patient to the next. MHAs offer the same treatment to each of its users due to their programming.

person holding iPhone
While MHAs offer at-home use, lack of research evidence leads scientists to question their reliability.

Cons of MHAs

While all of those options can be worthwhile reasons to download a mental health app, there are definitely cons of the process.

Lack of Experimental Evidence

A study by the University of Liverpool showed that there is a lack of experimental evidence for mental health apps when compared to other types of self-help intervention. According to co-author of the study Simon Leigh, apps should be “well-informed, scientifically credible, peer reviewed and evidence based.”

There’s an absence of clinical trials showing efficacy for these apps. If this kind of evaluation were to take place, Leigh says it would be a lengthy process involving a pilot study, an observational study, and randomization. This type of clinical process takes time and resources, while new mental health apps are coming out constantly and don’t often require these kinds of studies before launching. Scientists simply can’t keep up.

Minimal Professional Involvement

When designing these apps, clinicians aren’t often directly involved. It would be beneficial for the app and its usefulness if professionals were able to intervene in the creation process and point out potential red flags.

App developers often ignore the safety of their users. Jen Hyatt, CEO of mental health online community Big White Wall, says people in her position owe their audiences additional support resources, such as various emergency phone lines and recommendations to consult a general practitioner or mental health professional.

Over-reliance and Self-diagnosis

Certain MHAs offer ambitious results after using their techniques and exercises. A user should be wary of these apps, because treatment is often more involved than logging on once a day for a certain amount of time. If users become over-reliant on these apps, they may be less willing to seek professional help.

In addition, the study on MHAs done by the University of Liverpool showed that certain apps can result in a need to self-diagnose and consequent anxiety involved with that process.

Focus on one condition

Many people with anxiety or depression suffer from more than one condition, but many mental health apps are targeted at only treating one. While therapy offers a more inclusive treatment plan, MHAs can be too streamlined and disregard certain aspects of someone’s mental health.

Woman outside
The ADAA pointed out some worthwhile mental health apps. Find out what they were below.

Some MHAs to try

Many of these apps have yet to undergo clinical observation, but the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reviewed some mental health apps that can be beneficial for boosting mental wellness and personal awareness. Here are some of the ones they included with sufficient research and notable effectiveness.

  • AnxietyCoach. This app was created by Mayo Clinic and is available on the App Store for $4.99. AnxietyCoach utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help it’s users work through various worries/fears or obsessions/compulsions and how to overcome them. By working through each task or fear one by one, the user will work to become less fearful or compulsive.
  • Breathe2Relax. Developed by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, this free app uses breathing exercise to help manage stress. The app can be beneficial for sufferers of anxiety, stress, or PTSD. This app is particularly beneficial when used as a supplement to traditional therapy.
  • PTSD Coach. This free interactive app was designed by the National Center for PTSD for those suffering from mild to moderate PTSD. The ADAA says the app does a great job in educating its users about the condition and offers ways to manage it. It's also a useful in helping others who aren’t suffering understand the condition and the consequences of having it.

In their list of apps they reviewed, the ADAA included some apps that do not currently have extensive research done regarding their use, but users have reported them to be easy to use and personally effective. Here are some of those apps:

If you’re unsure about which avenue to pursue, talk to your general practitioner or a mental health care provider. Many of the apps the ADAA listed were shown to be especially effective when paired with traditional therapy, so that may be something to consider when working on your mental health.

person sitting on the beach at sunset
Mental health apps seem to be here to stay. Talk to a physician or mental health provider to see what options would be a good fit for you.

Ultimately, the demand for mental health professionals is growing while the supply is decreasing. Many people may find mental health apps a convenient and efficient way to help with their anxiety or other mood-related disorder when access to professional treatment is limited.

While mental health apps can be a great way to practice beneficial strategies and exercises at home or on the go, it’s important to not substitute these apps for psychotherapy when professional treatment is necessary. Ask your general practitioner about these apps and their relation to therapy. If you or a loved suffer from anxiety, depression, or a similar mood-related disorder, reach out to a professional for help. If it is a true medical emergency, call 911.

What are some questions you have about mental health apps? Let us know in the comments!

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