The allure of a quick and easy fix is pretty irresistible. It’s natural then, that when we’re struggling with things such as anxiety, low mood and sleeplessness, a lot of us are turning to smartphone therapy.
The app store seems to be a treasure trove, overflowing with bright and colourful promises of relief. Mood tracking, breathing, meditation, self-care suggestions — there’s a solution for almost everything, right at the touch of your fingertip.
But beyond the delightful, sunny animations and reassuring messages, do these mental health apps actually work?
In our self-help culture, mental health is often oversimplified. Technology has great potential as a treatment tool, and a good app — grounded in psychological research and scientifically tested — can be an affordable support.
“There’s really high–quality evidence that smartphone apps can help reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Dr Mark Larsen, researcher at the Black Dog Institute.
“Apps are also low–cost, ubiquitous, accessible 24/7 and confidential, so they offer new ways of potentially accessing help.”
The trouble is, most apps haven’t been scientifically evaluated. That doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful but without evidence, we don’t know if they’re as effective as they say.
In a 2019 study published in npj Digital Medicine, Larsen and his colleagues dug a little deeper into the claims made by popular mental health apps. Looking at the 73 highest–ranked apps available on the Apple and Android app stores, they found that while 44 per cent used ‘scientific language’ in their descriptions, only two apps provided direct evidence to support their effectiveness.
Of the apps using scientific language, most referred to evidence–based strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). But, one third referred to techniques which have no credible evidence as tools for mental health. Because there are so many apps out there and such little regulation, Larsen says considering the scientific credibility is essential.
“It’s important to build an evidence base to show that the apps will actually help people using them,” he says.
“For example, the apps and online programs we develop at the Black Dog Institute are evaluated in research studies, so we know they are effective.”
However, it’s getting easier for people to release their own health apps, and we know not all developers undertake this kind of evaluation. From our research, we also know there are apps out there that have the capacity to do harm.”
What to look for
Larsen says there are a few clues that can help you make an informed judgment.
“One of the key things to look for is the company or organisation that developed the app. The credibility of the developer is a good first indicator of the likely quality of the app,” he says.
If it’s created or supported by a university, government department or mental health organisation, you can be fairly confident it’s based on quality research. Otherwise, you may want to do a bit more digging into who’s behind it and what their credentials are. Next, read what evidence it claims.
“If it describes any sort of evaluation of the app, that’s also a good sign,” Larsen says.
The gold standard is a randomised controlled trial, but few apps have been through this process yet.
5 GREAT APPS BACKED BY SCIENCE
We’ve done the work for you and found white-coat approved apps.
Headspace (Free for 10 days, then about $18.57 a month, iOS and Android)
Learn to meditate with this app’s guided sessions and mindfulness exercises. Scientific studies have shown Headspace helps to reduce stress, and increase mindfulness and sense of wellbeing. Plus, the first 10 sessions are free.
Mood Coach (Free, iOS)
This app aims to boost your mood through ‘behavioural activation’, a popular CBT technique. Created by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, it helps you set goals, schedule positive activities in your day plus track your mood and progress. It also includes information about depression.
MindShift CBT (Free, iOS and Android)
Developed by Anxiety Canada, this app provides CBT–based tools to help you take charge of your anxiety. It includes guided meditations, coping cards, a thought journal, goal setting, belief experiments, and tips for creating healthy habits to set you up to manage anxiety better.
HeadGear (Free, iOS and Android)
HeadGear was developed by researchers at the Black Dog Institute, the University of Sydney and UNSW. It’s been designed particularly for men, and guides you through a 30–day mental fitness challenge using behavioural activation and mindfulness.
MoodMission (Free, iOS and Android)
Elegantly designed and colourful, MoodMission was created by two psychologists with support from Monash and Swinburne Universities. Simply tell the app how you’re feeling and it provides you with five ‘missions’ to improve your mood, based on cognitive behavioural therapy.
To find out if you’re burnt out, take a look at psychologist Noosha Anzab’s checklist at bodyandsoul.com.au