Stressed, anxious or depressed? There's an app for that!
7/31/2023 by Anne Roche, Ph.D., Rachel Wasson, Ph.D., and Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P.
More than 6 billion people worldwide actively use a mobile or smartphone. Mobile technology allows us anytime, anywhere access to shopping, banking, dating, social networking, gaming and even healthcare.
An estimated 350,000 health-related apps currently exist, accounting for approximately 90 million downloads last year. Increasing rates of mental health problems, coupled with multiple barriers to care, mean that mental health apps may present an opportunity to enhance access to effective treatments.
Just like other apps, mental health apps have a number of features: Education, self-monitoring, symptom assessment and tracking, engagement reminders, general support, social networking, coaching, skill-building, and even crisis management. While over 20,000 mental health apps are currently available, only a fraction have any evidence supporting their actual effectiveness in reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression.
Choosing the right app for you
Here are a few apps available for download on iOS and/or Android that have some evidence of their effectiveness and decent user experience ratings. The majority of these apps are free, although some have additional in-app purchases for expanded content and modules.
Stress & resilience
- Mindfulness Coach. This app from the Veterans Administration (VA) provides basic instructions for a variety of mindfulness and relaxation exercises. Reminders help routine use of these skills throughout the day.
- SuperBetter. What a great name for an app! This app takes a "gameful" approach in its design which has been shown to help with user engagement and setting goals while learning a variety of resilience strategies.
- Insomnia Coach. Sleep problems are a common feature of stress. The VA also developed this app to help teach skills for healthy sleep habits, reduce the amount of time spent in bed not sleeping, and improve the overall quality of sleep.
Anxiety & depression
- PTSD Coach. This app, also developed by the VA, guides users through evidence-based interventions for trauma, including exposure therapy, challenging thoughts, social support and healthy sleep. This is one of the most-researched mental health apps showing outcomes improve when used concurrently with clinician support.
- MindShift CBT. Anxiety Canada developed this straightforward, skill-building app that emphasizes Taking Action (exposure therapy), Healthy Thinking (challenging thoughts), and Chill Zone (relaxation) to manage symptoms associated with anxiety and perfectionism.
Artificial intelligence/chat bots
- WoeBot. Interactive texting with your "friendly self-care expert" guides users through various conversations that emphasize mood tracking, positive support, gratitude practice and problem-solving. An S.O.S. function helps to direct those in an emotional crisis to national suicide prevention hotlines.
- Youper. Based on CBT principles and healthy behavior changes, this app functions as your "emotional health assistant." Interactive exchanges encourage healthy goal attainment.
Mental health apps can be a cost-effective way to access care for common mental health problems. As the healthcare consumer changes, the use of smartphones for getting care is becoming increasingly more commonplace. While apps may provide coaching or tools for basic skill-building, they shouldn't be a replacement for in-person mental health services when needed and available.
Anne Roche, Ph.D., and Rachel Wasson, Ph.D., C.Y.T., are clinical health psychology fellows in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health at Mayo Clinic.
Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health. He is the co-chair of the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health and co-chair of Clinical Practice with the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic.