When someone needs mental health services, today more and more turn to smartphone apps for help. Mental health clinicians say these tools can be highly effective at helping with anxiety and other disorders, but caution many questions remain. Often counselors encourage their clients to investigate mental wellness apps as an adjunct to treatment.
Individuals interested in how professional counselors use mental health and wellness apps as part of an effective treatment approach should explore a master’s in counseling degree program to learn more.
History and Types of Mental Health Apps
The use of telehealth in treating mental health disorders has a long history dating back to the late 1950s, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Over the years, there have been many studies indicating the effectiveness of telehealth in delivering counseling services.
It may have been a natural next step, then, for the mental health field to embrace the digital age when the right technology emerged. That moment came in 2007 when Apple introduced the first iPhone, which created a market for consumer and business software applications, called applets or apps.
The first mental wellness apps appeared around 2011. One of the first was PTSD Coach, a joint development of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Ever since, the mental wellness app market exploded. Consulting firm Deloitte estimates as of December 2021, there were some 20,000 apps to help users cope with a variety of mental health concerns, including stress, anxiety, PTSD, and severe mental illness (SMI). Deloitte forecasts the U.S. market for these apps to hit nearly $500 million in 2022.
Not all apps are meant for use across the entire spectrum of mental illness — a substance use disorder requires different tools than bipolar disorder, for example. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) identifies six categories of mental health apps:
- Self-management. Provide feedback based on user input.
- Cognition improvement. Designed for severe mental illness and helps improve thinking skills.
- Skills training. Offer strategies and skills to improve coping mechanisms.
- Social support. Let users interact with peers and health professionals.
- Symptom tracking. Collect symptom data passively or require user input.
- Passive data collection. Gather data from large populations, without user input.
These categories correspond to clients’ specific diagnoses and needs. Apps may provide one or more of these functions.
Pros and Cons of Mental Health Apps
Mental health experts agree apps can help individuals manage a broad range of symptoms and illnesses. However, the vast number of apps means counselors can’t possibly review and vet the effectiveness of each one. While mental wellness apps offer numerous benefits, there are also some concerns associated with them.
Benefits of Mental Health Apps
The widespread use of mental health apps has its roots in numerous causes:
- Need. According to the NIMH, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with mental illness.
- Provider shortage. There is a shortage of more than 7,500 mental health practitioners nationwide, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
- Acceptance. The long history of telehealth in mental health services provides evidence that apps can be effective. The widespread adoption of telehealth during the pandemic accustomed people to wellness apps.
Mental wellness apps are at a person’s fingertips — literally. They can be accessed any time of day, according to the user’s schedule. A user may want to practice mindfulness or meditation. Some apps include modules counselors can assign to their clients, who can access them on their own timeline.
E-health has gained increasing acceptance among consumers. Smartwatches and other wearables track physical activity, heart rate, and other health metrics. With the rise in popularity of these devices, consumers are more likely to be open to apps designed for mental wellness.
Lack of Stigma
The stigma surrounding mental health treatment remains, although it’s on the wane. Still, mental health apps allow users to seek support without involving other people or speaking with a counselor. They can be entirely anonymous, though some apps do connect users with a live person.
Apps are often free or charge a nominal fee, making them more accessible to users who can’t afford traditional therapy or who don’t have health insurance.
Disadvantages of Mental Health Apps
Mental health experts have expressed concerns about mental health and mental wellness apps, despite these benefits. Some of these concerns revolve around who benefits from these apps and whether they may cause harm to some clients, especially those with severe mental illness.
Questions of Effectiveness
Some apps, like PTSD Coach, are known to be effective. However, mental health experts caution there’s not enough research to determine how well most consumer apps actually work. There’s some evidence of the “digital placebo effect,” in which users experience symptom relief just because they’re using an app.
Mental health apps are big business. Are developers focusing on building effective, ethical, safe apps — or on making money? Do developers have a background in mental health, or have they reached out to advisers in the field? These questions concern many mental health professionals.
Lack of Regulation or Industry Oversight
The health care industry is highly regulated, but these apps are marketed as consumer or lifestyle products rather than medical products. There’s no industrywide body setting standards for these apps and some may violate patient privacy laws under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Mental health apps may cause users to self-diagnose and rely on the app rather than seek professional treatment. This may prevent them from accessing needed care. These apps also tend to focus on a single condition, which means users could miss a more complex diagnosis.
5 Everyday Apps for Mental Health
What are some of the top mental health apps for everyday use? Whether users want guided meditation or cognitive behavior techniques, there’s an app for that. Everyday apps have many common features.
- Meditation. Many apps offer daily meditation and mindfulness techniques.
- Journaling. Whether gratitude journaling or keeping a diary of mood and/or stressors, these apps make it easy to track progress and connect mood with events.
- Notifications and reminders. Some apps include notifications, affirmations, and reminders to help users keep on top of their daily routine.
- Exercises. Certain apps include exercises so that users can practice what they’ve learned.
- Reports. Users can track their progress via reports and charts that the apps provide.
Some of the most popular apps include the following:
Calm is a meditation app that helps users relax and sleep better. It offers guided meditation, sleep techniques, movement and stretching, and music and nature sounds. Calm also partners with corporations who want to provide the app to their employees.
Moodfit tools include journaling, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral techniques. Users can set daily goals and set up notifications and reminders on what’s important for them. Moodfit also provides reports to help users understand patterns of behavior.
3. DBT Coach
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a subset of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) used in treating individuals with PTSD and borderline personality disorder. DBT Coach includes exercises, journaling, reminders, and other tools. It also facilitates communication with professional counselors, so it can be used in connection with counseling rather than as a standalone.
4. PTSD Coach
PTSD Coach offers education and other resources. It includes various tools and support resources. PTSD Coach has wide support from mental health experts, and research supports its effectiveness. This app and others the federal government has developed protect patient privacy.
Shine is aimed at the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community. Shine’s experts are all BIPOC counselors and teachers who understand the challenges minorities of color face. It offers daily meditation, self-care courses, virtual workshops, and community support.
5 Mental Health Apps for Teens
According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone that they used to access the internet; pass the time; connect with others; or, perhaps most crucially, avoid social contact. Studies about the impact of smartphones on teens reveal some disturbing trends.
- Loneliness. A worldwide study reported in the Journal of Adolescence showed an increase in school loneliness among teens and a correlation between loneliness and smartphone use.
- Mood disorders and suicide. A report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found a similar link between smartphone use, mood disorders, and suicide-related outcomes among teens.
- Body image. A report in Current Psychology found a link between smartphone use and negative body image among both boys and girls.
Given these issues related to smartphone use by teens, it may seem surprising smartphone apps may be an effective way of reaching adolescents who have mental health disorders. A small Australian study showed mental health apps for teens could be most effective by keeping it simple and not overwhelming them with information. The study also showed young people appreciated easy-to-use features and customizations.
The next five mental wellness apps can help teens with their specific challenges:
Sanvello offers self-care, peer support, coaching, and therapy. Tools include mood tracking, counselors, coaches who are experts in CBT techniques, and community support. Teens can check in with peers on relationships, eating disorders, LGBTQ+ challenges, and anxiety disorders. Teens can also share poetry and other creative work.
7. Calm Harm
Calm Harm helps young people manage the urge to self-harm. It lets users select different techniques based on what they need at the moment, whether that’s comfort, release, or distraction. Teens can use self-monitoring and reporting to understand their own triggers and learn to identify the best ways to overcome these challenges. Calm Harm also includes a journaling function.
MeeToo is a community-building app. Teens post anonymously and can communicate with other teens about their experiences. Trained counselors moderate all posts to prevent bullying and other negative situations. MeeToo also refers posts that indicate a need for expert help to a counseling team. The goal of MeeToo is to let teens help other teens and give them a safe space to discuss their issues without judgment.
The goal of Feeling Good Teens is to help teenagers build confidence and resilience. It offers tools including visualization, meditation and mindfulness, positive mental training, and CBT. The app offers short programs that users can listen to daily.
MindShift offers CBT tools for teens to help them manage anxiety. Other tools include a journal, coping statements, and a community forum where teens can find support from one another. Other features let users take steps to expand their comfort zone in a safe way and face their fears. Teens can also use the app to develop good habits and set goals.
5 Mental Health Apps for Kids
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for everyone, it’s been particularly tough on children, both adolescents and preadolescents. The statistics paint a troubling picture. Between April 2020 and October 2020, pediatric emergency room mental health visits for children ages 5 to 11 rose by 24%, compared with the same period in 2019, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A survey by the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago reported 71% of parents believe the pandemic took a toll on their children’s mental health. Children suffered from lack of socialization, social isolation, and fear of the virus, among other concerns.
Most mental health apps for kids focus on self-control and resilience. They use familiar characters and games to help children learn mindfulness and yoga, practice kindness, and improve their self-confidence.
The following five mental wellness apps were developed with children’s mental and emotional development in mind:
Breathe, Think, Do! is an app from Sesame Street that helps children learn to calm down with breathing exercises. It also teaches kids how to identify what they’re feeling and encourages them to try different solutions to see what works. As can be expected from the venerable children’s programming provider, this app speaks to children in a way they can understand.
12. Cosmic Kids
Cosmic Kids offers mindfulness and yoga exercises for kids. Parents and children can stream the programs on a mobile device and on TV. The app uses bright colors, animation, and friendly characters to draw kids in.
13. Mind Moose
Mind Moose teaches children about mental health in an age-appropriate and evidence-based way. Children go on “moose missions” and earn badges and certificates after finishing modules. Mind Moose focuses on healthy self-esteem and body image, helps children understand how their brains work, and teaches children to understand their own strengths.
The eQuoo emotional health app provides mental wellness in the form of a game. Users build an avatar and go on a quest. They collect gems representing a psychological skill. The game includes well-being check-ins. Users also earn certifications of completion.
The Positive Penguins app helps kids understand their feelings and overcome negative thinking. It uses the characters of four penguins who personify techniques for dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression: getting all the facts, seeing the big picture, planning for possibilities, and helping a friend.
Daily Practices for Mental Health
Research indicates daily mental health practices can be effective at helping people meet the challenges that arise from mental health issues. People may incorporate these practices as part of other routines, such as exercise, their commute, or rituals at the end of the day. Making these practices a habit will strengthen their effectiveness.
Some daily practices for mental health include the following:
Even just 30 minutes of exercise a day can be a mood booster and can help people get better sleep. The NIMH encourages small amounts of exercise, even when people can’t find time for 30 minutes.
Food and Hydration
Eating regular meals and getting enough water helps people maintain their energy and focus. Dehydration has been linked to anxiety. Low blood sugar from lack of food can increase production of stress hormones, which can make people “hangry.”
Mindfulness and Meditation
Whether using mental wellness apps or not, mindfulness, deep breathing, and meditation are all ways to reduce stress and anxiety. The benefits of meditation have also been linked to easing physical ailments, such as tension headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
Practicing Gratitude and Positivity
Gratitude journals help people highlight the positives in their lives. Since journaling isn’t for everybody, a ritual of counting the things one is grateful for before bed, for example, can also be effective. Similarly, making an effort to focus on the positive can help challenge unwanted negative thoughts.
Getting a good night’s rest often eludes many people and creates a feedback loop of stress and anxiety. Poor sleep hygiene can be the culprit. Going to bed at the same time every night; turning off smartphones, TVs, and tablets before going to bed; and keeping the bedroom dark and cool can help in getting a good night’s sleep. Eliminating caffeine late in the day and foregoing naps can also help.
Loneliness can cause many negative health impacts, including high blood pressure, anxiety, and cognitive decline among the elderly and others. Maintaining connections with family, friends, and the community can help combat loneliness and boost mental and physical health.
Master Wellness Apps With an MA in Counseling
Mental wellness apps are part of the growing use of technology in treating health conditions. On their own, these apps can help individuals of any age maintain and strengthen their mental health and wellness. They can also be used to supplement a mental health therapy program.
To gain a better understanding of how mental wellness apps can be used as part of an effective counseling program, explore Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling.