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Mental Health Apps: Do They Work and How To Pick One

Depressed? Anxious? Stressed out? There’s an app for that. In fact, there are some 25,000 mental health and wellness apps aimed at everything from eating disorders to PTSD to addiction.

With so many choices, it may be tough to figure out which one is right for you.

Used in conjunction with care from a mental health professional, so-called mHealth apps offer tips, advice, webinars and reminders that make self-care a part of your daily routine.

But if you’re using a mental health app without the partnership of a psychotherapist, it is more likely to provide you with limited benefits.

25,000 Apps, Really?

The growth of mHealth took off during the pandemic. We were forced to confront financial and physical health challenges, along with an unprecedented level of isolation and disruption to our normal lives and routines.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that during the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

During the pandemic, we learned it was possible to do many things remotely. That includes the way we receive mental health services, whether it’s from a clinician or from other sources. This ushered a new way of obtaining mental health help, whether speaking with a therapist via telehealth or using an app to enhance the work done in between sessions.

Mental health apps can be especially helpful to people in rural areas where mental health services aren’t readily available, or to those in low-income communities where those services aren’t affordable. These apps attempt to close a gap in services while providing education, strategies and even ways to obtain additional help.

Research is bullish on the potential for mental health apps to reach and assist people trying to cope with various conditions, but experts warn that the technology should not be viewed as a substitute for treatment from a mental health professional. 

How Mental Health Apps Work

No two apps are exactly alike, but many share basic tools. Some ask questions to help track your mood throughout the day. Others allow you to do daily journaling to chronicle their thoughts. They also offer meditation exercises, games, articles, videos, coaching, tips, breathing exercises, calming sounds, goal setting and even reminders to take medications.

Some apps are primarily designed to be used on smartphones and smartwatches, though many also have applications for desktop and laptop computers. 

Many of them are free, although some popular apps charge a monthly or yearly fee. Health insurance sometimes pays for subscriptions.

Choosing the Right App

With thousands of choices, picking the right app can be intimidating. One place to begin is talking with your mental health clinician or therapist. They often recommend an app to supplement treatment. Some mental health professions designed their own apps to help patients.

Remember, most mental health apps are not regulated by the government, so you need to be a careful consumer.

Here are some tips to help you choose the right app:

  • Look for disclaimer language clearly stating the purpose and limits of the app. It’s a red flag if the app isn’t up front about that.
  • Good apps will offer help in connecting with a therapist.
  • Apps should be sensitive to a diversity of cultures and religions. Apps that are pushing a political or religious agenda may not be the best for you.
  • Check if the app is updated regularly with articles, videos and other content. If an app hasn’t been updated in months, you may want to avoid it.
  • Make sure the app has a good variety of content. Calming sounds are helpful, but a robust app also has articles, podcasts, tips, videos and more.
  • As with many things online, check out the reviews. It’s best not to rely on an app that has very few reviews with five-star ratings. Look for one with lots of reviews. 
  • Check the app’s privacy policy. If you’re going to be sharing personal thoughts in a journal, it’s best to be sure you know if the app takes privacy seriously. Beware if the app has no privacy policy.
  • Make sure the app is a user-friendly experience. Someone who already is experiencing anxiety won’t be helped if the app is frustrating and difficult to use.
  • Make sure the app works on your Apple or Android device.

Used in conjunction with therapy and counseling, apps designed to better your mental health are an exciting technological development. Just be sure to choose wisely.

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