Part One: What to Look for in Good (and Bad) Mental Health Apps
You aren’t alone if you’ve ever turned to the online world for support with mental health concerns, for yourself or someone you care about. If you have, chances are you’ve encountered the ever-growing array of apps that claim to do everything from teaching meditation, mindfulness and mood tracking to curing mental illness and hypnosis. Apps can be an invaluable resource to improve and support mental wellbeing and prevent more serious mental health flare-ups, but not all mental health apps are created equal and deliver what they claim. In fact, some can do more harm than good.
So how can you tell the good apps from the bad?
There are a few things to consider from both a practical and personal perspective to help you navigate and spot the good apps from the not-so-good. Because there is so much to think about, we’ve split this into two parts. In part one, we’ll focus on the practical aspects of picking an app for mental health concerns like anxiety, depression and supporting mental wellbeing. In part two, we’ll run through some of the other important aspects like the different features available and some recommendations of evidence-based apps from reliable and respected organisations.
While most apps are available for both Apple iOS through the App Store and Android from Google Play, it’s worthwhile thinking about the device you are going to use the most to access the app. It’s hard to go past the convenience and omnipresence of your smart phone but it’s a good idea to make sure whatever devices you use are secured with a pin and not accessed by others (if you don’t want them to). Data security is also really important and you are generally in with a better chance of maintaining privacy and anonymity if you choose an app from a reputable organization, like a well-known university or health care provider. The other benefit of using an app from a university or healthcare provider is that it’s more likely to be evidence-based (and less likely to waste your time or cause you harm). ReachOut has a list of evidence-based mental health apps aimed at young people (under 25) and students but it’s worth a look for people of any age, especially if you are a parent and exam time is looming for your child. Before downloading an app, check to see whether it requires an internet connection and how much data it’s likely to use. If it doesn’t use data, it may be more difficult to access real time help and support if you need it.
Whether you need to pay for an app is not necessarily an indication of quality or safety. In the end, it comes down to the features and tools that you need and the level of support that fits your situation. Apps that target more than one type of mental health concern are useful, as we know that many mental health challenges like anxiety and depression often occur together and the last thing you need is multiple apps to use and keep track of. MoodKit has been highly-rated and offers a one-stop-shop for mood and thought tracking, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and journaling although it does come at a small cost.
Avoid apps that make outlandish claims, like being able to cure mental illness. Apps that only offer mood and symptom tracking without providing assistance or strategies for symptom management should also be used with caution and generally only to complement care provided by a mental health practitioner, like a counsellor, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Some pitfalls of using apps for mental health to be aware of include the dreaded and crippling over-analysis, the dangers of self-diagnosis and the potential to delay seeking professional help.
With that said, free mental health apps are a really good place to start to explore what’s out there and work out the kinds of features you want without making a financial commitment. If you need immediate crisis intervention, you can contact Lifeline here.