Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for mental healthcare, which has in turn led to the development of new online services. In our expanding technological world, there is an abundance of helpful mental health apps and websites to choose from. Like traditional self-help and in-person mental health services, many of these online tools target self-management, challenging unhelpful thinking styles, skills-training, social support, and symptom and mood tracking 1. Some apps also provide access to licenced professionals through video chat, phone call, and text message. In addition to these possibilities, mental health apps span all stages of clinical care from prevention, to primary treatment, and post-treatment maintenance 1. Finding an app designed to target your specific concerns and conditions can help you get enriched mental health treatment.
As the number of mental health applications skyrocket, several professional bodies like UK’s National Health Service and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health have jumped onboard to endorse their use 1. In fact, a growing body of research supports the use of smartphone-based apps as a mode of mental health treatment delivery. A substantial number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have found that using apps to reduce depressive symptoms and self-manage mental health significantly reduced user’s symptoms when compared to controls 2. Similarly, nine RCTs found that smartphone applications targeting anxiety were successful in reducing mental health symptoms 3. Overall, smartphone apps have significant potential to deliver high quality care and supplement existing mental health interventions.
Tips for Finding a Good App
As with anything, not all mental health apps are created equally and we want to provide some suggestions for finding an effective app that works for you. First, look for apps that have been backed by peer-reviewed research. This involves looking for apps that utilize evidence-based treatment methods like Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Mindfulness.
We also recommend looking for apps that are appealing to use and will increase your motivation to engage with the app. This will vary from person to person, but may include features such as regular usage reminders or alerts, an appealing interface, easy-to-use worksheets, or information that you relate to. Similarly, apps that use simple and intuitive interfaces, like employing pictures rather than text or using simple non-clinical language, are more likely to keep users engaged with them.
Finally, we recommend looking for apps that prioritize self-monitoring or mood tracking. We often don’t notice changes in our moods and this can play a role in anxiety, depression, substance use, and other disorders 1. Apps that emphasize periodically reporting mood, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours work to effectively increase self-awareness. Increased awareness has been shown to improve coping skills (after all, you can’t solve a problem that you’re not aware of)1.
Apps We Like
Although apps are not designed to substitute a licenced therapist, they can be a great resource to help manage your mental health and wellness and augment therapy. We have not developed and are not affiliated with any of these apps, but these are a few that we have reviewed and find helpful:
CBT Thought Diary
CBT Thought Diary takes a scientific approach to journaling by utilizing tools from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to improve your mood. Monthly calendars allow users to track moods and identify patterns, analyze thoughts and emotions, challenge negative thinking patterns, and reframe thought patterns for future experiences. Upgrading to the premium version allows individuals to delve deeper with guided journals, more insights, extra notifications, assessments, and data sync.
Cost: Core features offered in a free version, premium version for $59.99 CAD annually
Headspace: Mindfulness Meditation
Headspace is an everyday guide to mindfulness meditation and teaches mindfulness skills from world-class experts. It offers hundreds of guided meditations for a variety of needs and targets stress-management, sleep, anxiety, focus, and mind-body health. Some of the many collections include reframing stress and relaxation, anger, sadness, and growth, focusing at work, and meditating with kids. Headspace has been shown to reduce stress, symptoms of depression, and irritability in two primary studies 4, 5.
Cost: $17.99 CAD/month or $89.99 CAD Annual ($7.50/month)
MindShift CBT – Anxiety Relief
Mindshift is a free evidence-based anxiety management app that uses strategies based on Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This app helps to reduce worry, stress, and panic by using evidence-based tools and activities. Users work to challenge negativity, learn more about anxiety, develop more effective thinking patterns, and learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Mindshift includes an abundance of features including daily mood check-ins, progress tracking, goal setting, and reminder alerts to stay motivated. It provides guides to learning about anxiety, facts and tips to overcome anxiety and panic, testing our beliefs via experiments, and a community forum to share stories and give or receive advice. It also allows users to save and export data to share with their usual therapists or counsellors.
Feelmo: Mental Health Support
Feelmo is a free self-help app that provides relief from anxiety, stress, and depression through Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) inspired activities. This app was developed in collaboration with leading therapists and helps users to understand difficult feelings, find relief, get support, and learn about emotional wellbeing and self-care. Feelmo has a three-step process to help users to (1) identify the precise words to describe your feelings, (2) understand the meanings behind your feelings, and (3) manage the feelings using a variety of coping tools and suggestions. The app also allows you to track your history and identify patterns, as well as gain supportive advice and resources.
Talkspace is a free-to-download app that matches individuals with a licenced therapist and allows unlimited communication through live sessions, text, audio, and video. Talkspace offers comprehensive treatment plans including online therapy, psychiatric evaluations and medication management, couples therapy, and partners with health plans to offer affordable and accessible care. Additional resources like symptom trackers and mindfulness exercises are imbedded into the app for free use. Several primary studies have found Talkspace to be effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety, with results comparable to traditional therapy methods 6.
Cost: Plans start at $65 CAD per week (users may be able to use health benefits to cover cost depending on the plan)
10 Percent Happier Meditation
10 Percent Happier is a mindfulness meditation app that aims to improve user’s mindfulness, sleep, relationships, and overall happiness. The app is packed with over 500 guided meditations on topics ranging from anxiety, parenting, to focus and much more. New content is released weekly to ensure meditation does not become a chore. The app also allows you to track your mediations to hold yourself accountable. In addition to guided meditations, 10 Percent Happier provides short stories, inspiration, and wisdom that users can listen to on the go.
Cost: Basic features offered in a free version, full access to 500+ videos requires a yearly subscription of $99.99.
CPT Coach is an app designed for individuals participating in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) with a licenced therapist. This app was designed to help manage the users treatment program through providing support materials between sessions including mobile CPT worksheets, readings, and symptom monitoring. CPT coach also allows individuals to track their progress and set personal goals. Users are able to export their data to be shared with their licenced mental healthcare provider for use in CPT sessions.
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Authors: Emma Weber, BSc. and Dr. Dubravka (Dee) Gavric, C.Psych
- Chandrashekar, P. (2018). Do mental health mobile apps work: Evidence and recommendations for designing high-efficacy mental health mobile apps. MHealth, 4, 6–6. https://doi.org/10.21037/mhealth.2018.03.02
- Firth, J., Torous, J., Nicholas, J., Carney, R., Pratap, A., Rosenbaum, S., & Sarris, J. (2017). The efficacy of smartphone-based mental health interventions for depressive symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry, 16(3), 287–298. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20472
- Firth, J., Torous, J., Nicholas, J., Carney, R., Rosenbaum, S., & Sarris, J. (2017). Can smartphone mental health interventions reduce symptoms of anxiety? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Affective Disorders, 218, 15–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.04.046
- Economides, M., Martman, J., Bell, M. J., & Sanderson, B. (2018). Improvements in stress, affect, and irritability following brief use of a mindfulness-based smartphone app: A randomized controlled trial. Mindfulness, 9(5), 1584–1593. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-0905-4
- Flett, J. A., Conner, T. S., Riordan, B. C., Patterson, T., & Hayne, H. (2020). App-based mindfulness meditation for psychological distress and adjustment to college in incoming university students: A Pragmatic, randomised, waitlist-controlled trial. Psychology & Health, 35(9), 1049–1074. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2019.1711089
- Hull, T. D., & Mahan, K. (2017). A study of asynchronous mobile-enabled SMS text psychotherapy. Telemedicine and e-Health, 23(3), 240-247.