Seems like there’s an app for everything these days. You can keep track of your sleep, track your fitness, find a date, make sure you’re drinking enough water or standing up enough, monitor your heart health…and the list goes on and on. But did you know that there are actually a ton of apps – around 10,000 by some counts! – meant to help improve your mental health? It’s true, and some of them might just be worth checking out; after all, we’ve all experienced first-hand over the last few years how technology can keep us connected and deliver the services we need, so why not try out an app that can help keep you balanced in a world gone a bit crazy? But are mental health or therapy apps really helpful, how should you use them, and which are some of the best out of that sea of choices?
Why Mental Health/Therapy Apps?
It can seem so much easier to stay on top of your physical health than your mental health (although that can certainly be a challenge, too!), because there are just certain things you know you have to do to maintain your best health. One of those things is checking in with professionals to make sure everything is on track, and the same can be true about your mental health. But for some, regular face-to-face therapy sessions can be a challenge, and there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t getting any type of help or relief, or others who might need supplemental help.
That’s where mental health apps can come in: they can allow you access to at least some form of help, or you can also use them as a way to work more on what you’re working on in therapy, the way you might use a fitness app to supplement your training sessions with a personal trainer.
According to Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW, mental health apps might be one way to reach people who would otherwise not receive help by removing the barriers to treatment. “Sadly, only a small percentage of people actively seek professional help for their mental health problems,” he says. “This could be for any number of reasons: they may not be physically able to leave their homes due to severe anxiety or lack of mobility, or they may not have the financial means.”
For others, the anonymity is a big draw: again according to Raichbach, “The apps also allow for privacy and confidentiality and can be a safe space for individuals who may be too ashamed to admit their mental health issues in person or who may feel that they will be negatively labeled or stigmatized by others. The privacy of using an app gives some individuals the feeling of separation they need while still being able to find answers to their questions within the comfort of their own homes.”
There does seem to be value in at least the idea of using technology to bring mental health support and therapy to anyone who needs it, but mental health professionals are often quick to point out that it is not only important which app you choose, but also how you use these apps.
It is first important to note that the claims of these apps have not been proven in any peer-reviewed studies (although the best ones are definitely research-based), so you do have to take them with a grain of salt in one way. Next, you should be aware that mental health professionals seem to agree that the app you choose should at least “have mental health practitioners onboard, ready to answer questions, plus a 24/7 support hotline for more severe cases,” according to Dr. Raichbach; others think it’s important to use them as a supplement to more traditional therapy.
For example, Tanisha Ranger, PsyD, a psychologist who has used a variety of mental health apps with her patients says, “I see mental health apps being very useful for people who cannot get to sessions as often as they would like, but I do not view them as a substitute for therapy. If a person is actually in need of therapy, these can be a great supplement, but they cannot take the place of engaging with someone who can offer individualized interpretations and insights that an app cannot provide.”
What Are Some of the Best Apps Out There?
With all of that being said, if you’re starting to explore ways to stay on top of your own mental health on a daily basis, and you lack time or resources to have regular traditional therapy sessions, or you want some extra support, checking out one of these apps might not be a bad idea. The important thing is that you go into using these apps with your eyes open and consider the limitations of technology in keeping you psychologically healthy.
So which apps might you want to start with? The following are some of the most popular, so see if there’s one that seems like it might address your specific needs! And please note that we have not included apps purely focused on meditation, or apps that are narrowly focused on one issue, like addiction, eating disorders, OCD, etc – but there are some good apps out there that can help in those specific areas, too.
Developed by two clinical psychologists, MoodKit is a low-priced app that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies to help you learn how to change how you think, and develop self-awareness and healthy attitudes. It includes daily activities to help you boost your mood, a thought checker to help you identify and modify negative thoughts, a mood tracker to monitor your progress over time, and an online journal to record your thoughts.
This app was voted one of the best overall mental health apps of 2020 (and that was a tough year!). It provides users with comprehensive and customizable tools, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy support, mood and gratitude journals, breathing exercises, reminders and notifications for all sorts of things like medication, and activity tracking. It seems to have a little bit of everything to keep you grounded!
It’s not always easy to find high-quality free mental health or therapy apps, but What’s Up is one of them. It uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) methods to help you cope with depression, anxiety, stress, and more. It includes a positive and negative habit tracker, a “Get Grounded” page, which contains over 100 different questions to nail down how you’re feeling at that moment, and a “Thinking Patterns” page, which teaches you how to stop negative internal monologues.
Looking for something more than solitary reflection? Talkspace is an alternative or a supplement to traditional therapy, offering you the ability to text message a licensed therapist whenever you need to, and receive responses daily. You can also opt to connect with your therapist via voice or video, depending on what package you choose. This app is great for people who don’t feel comfortable meeting a therapist face-to-face, or for those who need extra support. As of this writing, plans start at $65 a week, much cheaper than traditional therapy sessions.
This simple therapy app was developed by researchers from Monash University, and it allows you to check-in when you’re feeling anxious or depressed. You’re then given a selection of research-backed “missions” to choose from to help boost your mood and teach you better coping skills.
Looking for an app specifically for a teen or young adult struggling with anxiety? MindShift is one of the best ones out there: it aims not to get young people to avoid anxious feelings, but rather to “shift” their mindset, as the name implies. It covers various types of anxiety such as social anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety disorder, and offers lists of coping strategies for dealing with these issues.
This app is perfect for getting the happy fix that you need, offering a psychologist-approved mood-boosting program that is tailored to you after you take a quick test to determine what you’re most interested in. You’ll get games, gratitude prompts, activity suggestions, and more that are geared toward training your brain like you would any other muscle, and improving your mood and your life.
Not into meditation, but still want some self-help, and some other kinds of strategies for dealing with anxiety? This app might be the way to go: you’ll be prompted to build your own 24-hour anxiety tool kit that allows you to track anxious thoughts and behavior over time, and learn 25 different self-help techniques. You can also use SAM’s “Social Cloud” feature to confidentially connect with other users in an online community for additional support.
Sure, therapy can be pricey, but now, more than ever, no one can afford to ignore their mental health – it’s just as important to look after as your physical health! So if you are finding it difficult to attend traditional in-person therapy sessions, or if you need extra support, a mental health or therapy app could give you the boost you need, often for little or no cost – just a little of your time, effort, and attention. Just remember that these apps might not be enough, and you might need further support, so don’t be afraid to ask for it!