According to recent reports, as many as 76% of Americans consider their mental health just as important as their physical health. And with at least 56% of US citizens seeking help for mental issues at any given point, it’s clear that there’s significant demand for more efficient, more effective systems that can serve the nation’s growing requirements.
As mental health services in the U.S. continue to suffer due to issues such as lack of access, limited options, and long waits, at least part of the answer may lie in telehealth services and apps, which make it easier for patients to access high-quality care through mobile apps and teletherapy software.
But how do mental health apps fit into or augment a traditional healthcare model? And what are their benefits? In this article, we’ll consider the role of smartphone apps in mobile therapy and virtual care models, while examining whether it lives up to its promise as well a powerful tool for the individual blended care practitioner.
What are Mental Health Apps?
A quick internet or app store search these days will reveal a plethora of different mental health mHealth applications designed to help users with a range of issues. Often considered the backbone of mobile therapy healthcare models, these different apps use a range of techniques to enhance and sometimes replace traditional patient treatment and care. Examples of such well-established treatment modalities include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Applied Behavior Analysis
- Talk Therapy
- Psychotherapy, and more.
Many mHealth apps are designed to target specific disorders and symptoms, while some target a range of symptoms, from depression, to bipolar disorder, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and more.
The Benefits: A Quick Look
For providers, offering information on mental health apps gives patients access to mental health techniques and care outside of sessions, helping to augment in-person treatment programs through more frequent practice and continuity of care.
For patients who do not have access to healthcare or who cannot afford therapy, free and low-cost mental health apps are a much-needed alternative. Mental health apps offer a range of benefits and make therapy more affordable, accessible, and portable. All a patient needs is a smartphone or mobile device hooked up to the internet to access a mental health app, and thus, begin or continue a teletherapy treatment.
Because they are often most effective for managing sub-clinical symptoms, they are also versatile, fitting well into mental health coaching plans as well as medical treatments
Mental health apps offer a range of benefits and make therapy more affordable, accessible, and portable.
The Downsides: A Quick Look
At the same time, no mental health treatment is without its disadvantages, and mental healthcare apps do have their downsides.
Most importantly, therapists and patients should be aware that although mental health apps may enhance patient care – and while substantial evidence supports their efficacy – many available apps are not empirically-based. Many products claiming to address specific issues may lack peer-reviewed evidence to support their claims, and remaining confusion around industry regulation means that users need to practice due diligence when shopping around online.
But, it’s safe to say that in the future, mental health apps will continue to play an increasingly important role in the provision of care. There is even evidence suggesting that they hold significant potential to increase patient engagement, while positively influencing patients’ ability to self-manage symptoms, which in turn can lead to improved clinical outcomes.
How are Mental Health Apps Evaluated?
At this time, the American Psychiatric Association does not have a formal system for rating mental health apps. As mobile apps come on the market while others are continuously changing and evolving, however, there is mounting pressure for a provider framework that allows both practitioners and users to evaluate them.
The checklist currently offered by the American Psychiatric Association can help providers make an informed decision before suggesting mental health apps to their patients. Some of the most important things to consider are:
- How private and safe is the app?
- Is there evidence to support the app’s usefulness?
- Is the app is user-friendly?
- Is the mental health app interoperable with other systems the practice is using?.
The Impact of Mental Health Apps on Therapists and Providers
Trust, communication, emotional connection, and rapport are key to therapy’s success and the ability of patients to benefit from it. Technology cannot replace these connections, but it can enhance them.
Removing Barriers to Seeking Treatment
In this context, mental health apps have two major distinct benefits: the right mental health app can remove barriers to treatment and can enhance treatment plans and patient engagement, particularly when used in conjunction with traditional methods as in telepsychology.
We’ve listed a few examples in this table.
Potential Barriers To Seeking Treatment
|Advantages of Mobile Health Apps|
Long Waiting Times
|Not everyone with a mental health issue can access mental health care due to long waiting times. In such cases, using a mental health app is far better than no treatment at all.|
Inconvenience of Travel
|People who live in rural areas or are without transportation may not be able to get to a brick-and-mortar location for therapy sessions, due to mobility issues, financial concerns, or the great inconvenience it involves.|
Cost of In-Person Therapy
|Others are without adequate insurance coverage and may not have the means to pay for it out-of-pocket. In other instances, the nature of a person’s mental health condition may prevent them from accessing care.|
Perceived Social Stigma
|Severe anxiety, trauma, and the stigma associated with mental health conditions are some of the important barriers to care mental health apps can also help address, by offering user privacy and removing or reducing the requirements around in-person session attendance.|
In this sense, mental health apps offer patients increased anonymity and privacy, and give them a safe, confidential space to engage with treatment from the comfort of their home, or while on the go.
mHealth App Features
For Patients and Users
So, what should users and practitioners look for in a mental health app? Some examples include:
- Instant access to live sessions with licensed, experienced practitioners. For the mHealth user or patient, such apps tend to work through synchronous messaging systems such as instant messaging or video therapy technology.
- Not all those struggling with severe symptoms can benefit from mHealth apps or mobile therapy, but for those with moderate symptoms, access to 24/7, round-the-clock support can sometimes be useful. This is also valuable in that it allows users in different time zones to seek mental healthcare when and where it is not locally available.
- Ideally, mental health apps should be a way to supplement well-established interventions and treatment plans through digital clinical solutions. In this sense, they should provide psychoeducational resources that a user can work through at their own pace. While the jury is still out on the efficacy of such psychoeducational in-app content, findings on its acceptability and feasibility is promising. Examples include exercises, games, and journal functions.
For healthcare practitioners, mental health apps should ideally:
- Offer the functionality to enhance and extend the treatment process beyond the sessions and traditional methodology. Outside of sessions, mental health apps might provide incredibly useful functions for keeping therapists and patients connected, engaged and informed. However, using mental health apps in isolation may present certain challenges and more questions than answers regarding the efficacy of these treatment methods.
- They may also assist in essential practice management tasks, such as office management, billing, scheduling, and document or record storage. Good examples include apps that offer electronic health (EHR) or electronic medical record (EMR) capabilities.
Understandably, many providers are critical of the use of mental health apps as a replacement or an alternative to face-to-face therapy sessions.
However, the ability to access a mental health app is a positive development in the field of mental health care for those who face barriers to traditional forms of treatment.
See our discussion of client management software for a full description of the mental health solutions that are helping practitioners run their businesses.
5 Best Low-Cost and Free Mental Health Apps
Mental health apps give patients valuable access to increased guidance and support for their symptoms and struggles. People who lack the time and resources or need supplemental support for their mental healthcare needs can find a range of free mental health apps or low-cost options on the market today.
Providers can also research different mental health app offerings and adopt them to provide enhanced care to patients through additional exercises, worksheets, and activities that help motivate patients outside of scheduled therapy sessions.
Mental Health App
|This depression app runs on a foundation of CBT techniques and strategies, currently considered one of the most effective treatment options for moderate to severe depression.|
This app is an excellent tool for enhancing treatment for depression and helping patients continue with treatment techniques outside of therapy. The app teaches patients different relaxation methods for lowering stress and worry.
Patients will also learn how to identify problematic thinking patterns and change their mindset. The app also includes easy-to-learn techniques and strategies for reducing stress and reframing thoughts that may be worsening or triggering depression symptoms. Also included in the app are:
|Name||Depression CBT Self-Help Guide|
|Good For||Depression, CBT|
Mental Health App
|The What’s Up mental health app is an excellent tool that gives patients access to both CBT and ACT techniques. This free mental health app can help patients manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.|
The app includes a positive and a negative habit tracker that helps patients reach their goals and maintain positive habits and reduce negative patterns that can worsen mental health symptoms.
The free What’s Up mental health app also includes checklists and questionnaires that help patients identify how they are feeling, and can help reduce negative thoughts and self-talk. iOs and Android devices can download the app.
Mental Health App
|This mental health app primarily uses CBT techniques to help users improve their mood and emotional state. Within the app, users have access to more than 200 different mood improvement exercises. When people use Moodfit, they will learn different methods for how to change their perspectives.|
The app also includes exercises for developing healthy attitudes and self-awareness. Moodfit gives users access to a journal where they can work through their emotions and reflect on the day’s events and how they overcame struggles and setbacks.
Misunderstandings and confusion surround a lot of different therapy techniques and medications for mental health symptoms. The Moodfit mental health app gives users tools to understand better how various medications and therapy work.
|Good For||Self-awareness, Negative Thinking|
Mental Health App
|Communication is crucial for the client-provider relationship. The mental health app connects patients with licensed mental health practitioners.|
Users can attend teletherapy sessions from the comfort of their home, and with any digital device with an internet connection. Computers, tablets, and smartphone devices can download the app.
For therapists to be eligible for Talkspace, they need to complete at least 3,000 clinical hours and been trained to provide therapy sessions over the internet. Many of the therapists who’ve signed up with Talkspace are specialized in CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness, or existential-humanistic practices, and more.
|Price||Free, Paid options available for professional counseling|
|Good For||Professional Counseling, Anxiety, Depression, Stress|
Mental Health App
|Nudge Coach offers users a way to set mental health goals and track their progress, creating accountability and motivating them to make positive progress.|
This app can be used one-on-one with a coach or with groups, as it enables HIPAA-compliant messaging between all parties to keep them on track. It offers a lot of back-end features for professionals, making it a versatile piece of life, health, or business coaching software, too.
|Good For||Mental Health Coaching, Goal-Setting, Fitness Behavioral Health, Business Coaching|
Visit this link for some recommended mobile apps for psychologists that we haven’t already covered.
While many people are concerned that automation devices will take away their jobs, therapists and mental healthcare providers need not be concerned. Mental health apps enhance the client-provider relationship and make it easier for patients to continue with their treatment outside of active therapy sessions.
Further, mental health applications offer treatment to patients who may not be able to access care otherwise. As technology and healthcare continue to evolve, healthcare apps will become more commonplace as supplementary tools for treatment plans.
Have you tried using mental health apps? How do you think these tools are improving the client-provider relationship? Feel free to share your thoughts and concerns for mental health apps in the comments section.
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