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Mental Health Apps: Can Technology Help Us Live a Better Life?

February 16, 2022

We all feel stressed. Sometimes. But in recent years, the feeling of anxiety, stress, and depression has become a global phenomenon as people are feeling increasingly insecure about their tomorrow. The new study by Boston University paints a dreary picture. It states that depression rates have tripled during the Covid pandemic, meaning that 28% of Americans experienced this mental health condition in March 2020. This number jumped to 32% a year later. The pandemic has affected pretty much everyone, including youth, with students worldwide—from Europe to Australia—showing an extremely high level of distress. 

As access to therapy is still a problem for many, and the level of psychological discomfort seems only to grow, we must take matters into our hands and fix it before it’s too late. Can technology help us with that? Can mental health apps and software be the key to tackling one of the biggest modern crises—collective stress

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A very promising market

Mental health software is already a big topic of interest today. As almost 800 million people globally live with some mental health condition, up to 20,000 mental health applications in the app stores don’t seem to be a big surprise. Mental health app creators strive to change the mental health field in ways that would have been unimaginable in the past.

We’re already seeing solutions aimed at solving a specific mental health issue and those focused on enhancing the general well-being. From apps that just “help you fall asleep” all the way to preventing suicides, mental health software is trying to impact people’s lives in a positive way.

With the global mental health market size is projected to grow from US$1.9 billion in 2020 to US$4.5 billion by 2026, the large flows of investments and the ever-growing demand for solutions of this kind are solid proof that mental health apps are here to stay. 

Why do we need mental health apps, after all?

Mental health apps aim to make therapy way cheaper, accessible, and, well, portable. Mental health software has unlocked the opportunity to use tech to help people navigate and manage their recovery process effectively. This is a great supplement or, in some cases, an alternative to traditional therapy. Such apps can help diagnose, provide immediate relief during the crisis, and provide preventive measures to stop breakdowns from happening.

These cheap and sometimes even free tools are created to help people understand themselves better, build new strategies for dealing with their conditions, and keep track of their progress at ease. Some of these applications even allow reaching professionals if the situation is too complex to handle on your own.

Poor mental health can cost us a lot. Even in the year before the pandemic, the global economy lost around US$2.5 trillion because of mental health issues, while the damage was expected only to grow. Depression and anxiety alone were responsible for US$1 trillion in losses.

Governments, businesses, and researchers are trying to find new innovative ways to deal with this problem, and tech seems to be the answer. It is believed that it is mental health software that can develop a diverse ecosystem of highly specialized tools allowing people to find the right solutions for their mental health needs, creating a safer environment for reaching the “I feel well” goal.

Digital helpers

The idea of fixing our minds with the help of apps in the modern world is not that surprising. But are mental health apps really helpful in practice? Well, at least some studies think so.

Meta-analyses of trials covering 22 mobile applications showed that using them to ease symptoms of anxiety disorders reduced those symptoms. A similar analysis of depression treatment applications revealed that patients experienced a reduction in depression symptoms after using the software. And according to the study of the popular mindfulness application Headspace, users are less depressed and experience more positive emotions after 10 days of using an app.

The ecosystem of mental health software is pretty large, and many people who first try to find an app like that may feel lost in the vastness of the mental help app space. So to make it a little easier, we have grouped the myriad of mental health apps into different categories. Each is designed to help users handle specific tasks related to stress, anxiety, and more. Here are the most common ones:

General mental health apps

The general mental health apps help deal with issues such as anger, stress, or depression. They provide a functional environment where you can learn to manage your mood, change your negative thoughts, and keep calm in uncertain situations.

Examples of general mental health apps:

  1. CBT Thought Diary. CBT Thought Diary is a journaling application created to help users reframe their way of thinking via positive psychology and сognitive behavioral therapy tools. If you feel that you need to practice your gratitude, improve your mood and access your state of mind, this is a good option for you.
  2. Sanvello. Sanvello offers guidance on how users can improve their mental health. It gives access to coaching sessions, self-care tools, and a community where you can explore various topics and connect with others.
  3. Moodflow is a mood tracking app. The application allows users to capture their moods, thoughts, emotions, and understand themselves better.

You can also choose more specific apps for mental health.

Addiction apps

Examples of addiction apps:

  1. Quit That! This one is helpful if you need to get rid of your addictions or bad habits. The free application offers a recovery companion to help you push your life in the right direction.
  2. Twenty-Four Hours a Day. The app provides 366 meditations, aimed to help people in recovery from addiction stay focused and have a calmer mindset. The application is based on a popular book with the same name.

Anxiety Apps

Examples of anxiety apps:

  1. Self-Help for Anxiety Management (SAM). If you’re not into meditation, this application keeps offering you a different way to monitor your anxious thoughts and behaviors, such as crafting your own 24-hour anxiety toolkit. It also comes with a huge set of self-help techniques and a large confidential online community.
  2. MindShift. You don’t have to avoid your anxious feelings and thoughts. Instead, you should change the way you think about them with the help of MindShift app. The app, created specifically for teens and young adults, motivates users to be responsible for their lives, tackle challenges, and withstand strong emotions.

Bipolar disorder apps

Examples of bipolar disorder apps:

  1. eMoods. This is an application that aims to make the life of people with bipolar disorder a little easier. eMoods allows you to monitor depressive and psychotic symptoms, irritability, and moods daily and then summarize this data in a monthly calendar.
  2. Medisafe. Medisafe ensures that people with bipolar disorder take their medications in time and manage their changes in mood well. The app provides information on pills and reminds users to take medication and refill prescriptions.

Depression apps

  1. MoodKit. This app helps users manage their depression with a variety of tools. Based on cognitive behavioral therapy, MoodKit walks them through disturbing thoughts and allows tracking symptoms. The app also provides a journal for recording essential events.
  2. Youper. Youper is a mental health application with a chatbot that helps you manage your depression symptoms. The app enables users to understand themselves better and reduce their negative thoughts.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder apps

  1. nOCD. If you experience obsessive-compulsive disorder, you can turn to this app. nOCD helps you effectively manage your OCD episodes, evaluate how severe your condition is, and get some motivational support.
  2. GG OCD aims to help you replace the negative patterns of your thoughts with positive ones, improve self-esteem, and believe in change. The application takes users through 47 “levels,” each covering a specific topic such as negative thinking, self-criticism, coping, etc.

Mindfulness and meditation apps

  1. Headspace is a mobile mental health app that is particularly great for people with little or no meditation experience. Headspace offers meditation sessions of different time lengths, the shortest of which lasts only 3 minutes. Most of these sessions are general, but some of them focus on sleep, stress, and anxiety.
  2. Calm. Calm is similar to Headspace, but has some special features, such as sleep stories. This application also offers numerous breathing exercises, visuals that you can concentrate on during meditation sessions. You can also use Calm on your laptop or desktop.
  3. Insight Timer. Users can filter more than 6,000 meditations based on different criteria – topic, meditation type, age, etc. The application allows tracking your meditation progress, seeing your friends’ activity who use the app, accessing discussion forums, customizing your meditation experience, and more.

Two big issues with mental health apps

Although mental health solutions are meant to change people’s lives, there are at least two big challenges we should know about and keep an eye on. The biggest concerns in this context are the lack of privacy and evidence of therapy apps.

Many free mental health applications have business models that rely on advertising, therefore any information you share with such an app may be shared with third-party firms. For example, some apps send their data to Facebook. While the tech giant says that they don’t use sensitive data for targeted ads, yet, we can not be sure that they see the information shared as sensitive. 

Furthermore, there are serious concerns about whether these apps can protect the privacy of users’ data as they may lack strong, reliable security systems. Mental health apps collect a lot of personal data, medical data, and records of users’ daily routines. Once this sensitive data is public via social or other third parties, you won’t have any control over it.

But the biggest issue related to mental health apps is the lack of evidence on their effectiveness. Various research shows that most products come with little or no evidence and are not based on serious studies. Most of them use small and non-systematic samples. For example, Australian researchers found out that only 6% of 300 companies that created anxiety and depression apps published some proof of their evidence-based framework.

Part of the reason mental health apps fail to do that is that tech and healthcare are evolving at very different pace. While controlled and randomized studies can take years, the applications – due to the high level of competition – are being developed much more rapidly.

There is also no standard formula for evaluating the effectiveness of CBT-based apps. The critics point out that mental health apps rarely give users credible sources to ensure the information, practices, and outcomes are accurate. Experts also question the therapeutic recommendations of such apps. The mobile apps are often developed under the supervision of firms that have no links to the mental health industry, therefore, they cannot be called reliable.

So how can I choose a mental health app?

Considering the vast number of mental health apps and the concerns mentioned, picking the right one might be challenging. However, some resources might simplify this choice.

  • MIND (the Mental health Index and Navigation Database) is a great aggregator of mental health apps. It offers a wide selection of applications that can be selected via over 100 filters ranging from supported conditions to features, and price. With this service, you can find an app that meets your needs best.
  • PsyberGuide. This website provides reliable information on software products created to help you improve your mental health well-being. This service reviews applications based on various criteria and publishes ratings. Some of them include comments from mental health specialists who describe the app’s benefits and explain how to use it. PsyberGuide aims at helping users make an informed decision about the technology they use to deal with mental health problems.

Medicine for everyone

We all should take better care of ourselves, and for many of us, mental health apps seem to be an easy way out. Depending on the complexity of the condition, people can use mental health apps instead or in addition to sessions with a therapist. 

Such tools become a good option for people with no access to a therapist, who are ashamed of asking for help or simply prefer using digital services to solve all of their problems. It is also a great way for companies to enhance their well-being programs and make employees more happy and productive. 

One of the biggest strengths of digital health apps is their availability and the ability to access them anytime. Therefore, it is a great option to improve the health of citizens of emerging countries, who usually have very limited access to mental health support. 

We can’t say that mental health software is a panacea, but rather a catalyst for understanding that mental health is of equal importance as physical health. Such apps are definitely not the ultimate answer to all your mental health snags, but they can be a good addition to help the healthcare system and improve the quality of people’s life.

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