You’ve had a bad mood for the past two months, lost your appetite, and can’t sleep well. Your family is concerned because you have lost interest in cooking and reading, both of which you used to enjoy. The pandemic’s stress has altered your routine, and you’re juggling remote work, childcare responsibilities, household management, and the care of your ailing father. You attempted to contact a therapist, but after conducting an extensive online search, you discovered that the first available appointment was months away. Apps for mobile therapy were recommended by a friend, but do they work?
What is the conclusion of the research?
Apps for mental health purport to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses without the need for therapy sessions. There’s no need to wait, and anyone with a smartphone can get started right away. Many apps are free, in addition to being convenient. You might be right if this sounds too good to be true.
There was no “convincing evidence” that any mobile app intervention greatly improved outcomes related to people’s anxiety, depression, smoking or drinking, thoughts of suicide, or feelings of well-being, according to a study that looked at randomized controlled trials of mobile app mental health interventions with nearly 50,000 patients. While this is unfortunate, it is possible that this is due to the study methods, in which researchers grouped interventions that were completely different together. When the results of a small trial with a positive effect are combined with less helpful interventions, the results may appear unhelpful.
When we believe in a treatment, it works. In one study, the popular meditation app Headspace was compared to a fake version (which included guided breathing but without the active component of mindfulness). Both the active and sham versions of the intervention improved outcomes (critical thinking and mindfulness), suggesting that the active ingredient may not be in the intervention component itself.
What about depression computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) programs? Researchers from the United Kingdom investigated the effects of the most popular CBT programs (Beating the Blues and MoodGYM), and found no benefit when compared to standard primary care.
What are we to make of these findings?
The study of the mental health effects of mobile apps is still in its early stages, but we will have more information in the coming years. Low-touch interventions, such as mobile apps, may be able to help you get through a difficult time or at the very least raise your symptom awareness. Is it going to help you with your depression? Probably not, but if you believe in it, it might help.
Therapy can be enhanced with the use of mobile apps.
When considering the various types of psychotherapy available, it’s interesting to note that they all produce similar levels of symptom improvement. The relationship with the therapist is the most important factor in assisting patients in making progress. Therapy includes having a safe place to talk about your stressors, seeing your worries validated in the eyes of another person, and developing a trusting relationship. A mobile app eliminates the human element of a therapeutic relationship, which is known to be a key component of treatment success. Mobile apps, on the other hand, can supplement therapy by providing symptom trackers, reminders, skill reinforcement, and community features for setting goals and sharing progress.
When mobile apps aren’t sufficient
How do you pick a good mobile application?
With thousands of mental health apps available online, it may take some trial and error to find one that works for you. Based on their evidence base, usability, security features, and my clinical experience, I recommend the following apps.
For practicing mindfulness: Calm: CBT-i Coach For insomnia: CBT-i Coach For PTSD: PTSD Coach For C
- For mindfulness: Calm
- For insomnia: CBT-i Coach
- For post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD Coach
- For stress related to COVID: COVID Coach
- For learning distress tolerance skills: DBT Coach
- For managing your mood and anxiety: CBT Thought Diary
- For monitoring your mood/memory and keeping your mind sharp: THINC-it.