Do apps for mental health actually work?

There is a frightening and persistent statistic that 1 in 5 people have a diagnosable mental health condition, the prevalence being greater among young people aged between 16-24 years old, with most conditions presenting themselves by the age of 18. Of course it is important to treat these conditions so they do not worsen into adulthood or lead to people developing other conditions which will be trickier to treat.

However, according to many studies, only around 25% of young people under the age of 18 with a diagnosable mental health condition will actually access professional help. There are many barriers to seeking help such as financial constraints, fear of being stigmatised, feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable discussing mental health problems and long waiting lists to be seen by a professional. Similarly, although evidence-based interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are available, services which provide these treatments are limited. Because of all these barriers, it could be that other forms of receiving treatment can help more young people in desperate need of support. 

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CBT aims to challenge negative thoughts, behaviours and emotions

Studies have found that computer-based CBT and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) provides a way of increasing access to evidence-based interventions for children and young people and has shown to be effective in promoting mental health (e.g. Pennant and colleagues, 2015; Viskovich & Pakenham, 2018). 

However, with the increasing number of young people who now have mobile phones, it is suggested that mental health applications can provide a platform to delivering quick access to interventions. Using mobile apps may reduce the barriers to accessing mental health treatment, and potentially be more effective than face-to-face therapy since there is more anonymity,  can be accessed anywhere and provides immediate support (Gulliver, Griffiths & Christensen, 2010).

There have been countless apps designed in recent years, with an aim to target a spectrum of mental health conditions, e.g. depression, anxiety, OCD, addictions, insomnia etc. 

On the Mind charity website and Psycom there is a list of many apps. While taking a look through them, there are many that claim to incorporate CBT techniques such as ‘What’s Up?’, ‘Rise up’ and ‘Catch it’. Other apps such as ‘Dailyo’ and ‘Worry Watch’ use diary approaches to keep track of thought processes. There are also apps which primarily use guided meditation and breathing exercises such as ‘Headspace’ and ‘Calm’. 

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Screenshot from ‘Calm’
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Screenshot from ‘Worry Watch’

Also, there are apps which give the opportunity to speak to a trained therapist (with a charge). This could provide an alternative to those who need therapy but who fear leaving the house due to their mental health. 

Despite so many mental health apps being readily available to install, the majority of them do not have any evidence-based support for their effectiveness. On Mind, they even put a disclaimer that they are not able to recommend any particular apps and that the apps should not be used as a replacement for seeking medical help.

There is little information regarding how valid the symptom assessments are, which apps are effective or how well the apps compare to face-to-face interventions (Olff, 2015). A systematic review in 2017 investigated publications between 2008 and 2016 on the efficacy of mobile apps for mental health in young people. They found that usage of the apps had little effect on mental health outcomes and found that very few had undergone any research evaluation. Given that the number and pace of mental health apps which are produced, it is important to evaluate their effectiveness, otherwise individuals will be trying to cure their conditions with something that potentially does nothing. It could be that anxiety is increased due to the self-diagnosing tools of these apps and there could be an over-reliance on the effectiveness of the apps whereby people avoid seeking professional help as they believe the apps will fix everything.

While the majority of apps are not supported by evidence, health experts believe mobile mental health treatment will play an important role in the future of health care and gives more people the treatment they need that is not readily available in face-to-face form. 

Without thorough investigation into these apps myself, I cannot give too much information on them. As someone who has undergone counselling and CBT for my anxiety, it would be interesting to see whether the quality of the apps is comparable to real-life therapies. Therefore, I will be installing a few of these apps to try them out for the whole of January and I will give my verdict on them at the end of the month! 

I will be installing ‘Calm’, ‘Headspace’, ‘What’s Up?’ and ‘Dailyo’ to test out apps which claim to offer something a bit different from each other. I will be mostly focusing on managing my anxiety and will target my use of these apps with this in mind. 

I’ve collected a score of my social anxiety using the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale and have got a score of 45 (for fear), 41 (for avoidance), which is a total of 86 overall, which apparently means I have ‘severe social phobia’ (oops!). I did the same scale approximately 6 weeks ago and got the same score (so I can kind of see that my degree of social phobia hasn’t changed much over that amount of time). I will collect my social anxiety score at the end of January and see if there is any marked difference, or if I have been cured completely! Obviously there are holes in my experiment and it’s hard to control for everything but it’s just a curiosity test for myself. 

As long as I don’t get distracted, I should post again at the end of January, so I’ll see you all then!


Picture credit: https://mrc.ukri.org/funding/science-areas/neurosciences-mental-health/