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The best mental health apps

The Best Mental Health Apps

As the awareness of mental health raises, so does available apps and online solutions that target this industry. With more than 50% of Americans not having access to mental health services, technology makes its way to provide the support needed. However, with plenty of apps out there, only a handful have actual studies and science baking up their methodology.

Are Mental Health Apps Needed?

The demand for mental health solutions has arisen over the last few years. Our day-to-day lives can be busy and stressful. With jobs, families, and projects we have to juggle all while trying to maintain our own mental health. 19% of adults are experiencing a mental illness and six in 10 Americans seek mental health services. However, more than 50% of people in the US don’t have access to mental health options.

As expected, the effects of COVID-19 have taken a big toll on the population’s mental health state. COVID spiked cases of mental health conditions: depression, anxiety, mental instability, substance use, suicide rates. 40.9% of respondents (18+ YO in the USA)  reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder.

Over 30% of Americans reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in September 2021 alone. LinkedIn found that burnout went up in 2020 by 33% compared to 2019, with survey respondents reporting high levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and feelings of overwhelm.

The talk about Mental Health has been a big highlight since the start of the pandemic, and as its awareness raises, so does the demand for more solutions and better access to mental health solutions (being tech or not). Isolation, distancing and lockdown have given online solutions and apps an opportunity to assist people in need.

Remote solutions have thrived. For example, fewer patients are skipping therapy sessions. As a result, companies have implemented new benefits focused on mental health and wellbeing. PwC’s Health and Well-being Touchstone survey showed that 53% of employers added mental health programs to address COVID-19 concerns, and 44% added or increased wellness programs.

Technology and mobile applications can facilitate access to mental health and in cost-effective ways. Since stress levels have risen over the last few years, people are looking for new ways to manage their mental health more effectively than ever before. Apps can extend mental health services in the areas of communication, accessibility, self-monitoring, self-management, diagnosis, and treatment.

Are Mental Health Apps Effective? - The Challenge

Apps are a new and accessible way to keep track of your mental health. They can be used for meditation, stress relief, and even depression management. Apps can be helpful to understand and track your mood, identify triggers, manage your stress and anxiety, and understand the severity of your symptoms. Their accessibility and technological solutions augment the care for mental health.

However, their efficacy and reliability of publicly available applications have yet to be demonstrated. They should be considered a tool and not a replacement for treatment. It’s important to identify when to find professional help for serious mental illnesses that require medication and/or psychotherapy, for example, bipolarity or depression. Fortunately, some platforms and applications are dedicated for or also offering online therapy and counseling, with licensed and certified mental health professionals.

Not all apps are created equal and therefore the user needs to be picky when choosing, as some might have incorrect information or be too expensive for what they offer. A lot of popular apps don’t seem to be clinically tested, science-based, or evaluated by professionals in mental health.

Only a handful of apps present rigorous evidence demonstrating their efficacy, being one of the main challenges mental health apps impose as shown in this study. User ratings can also be deceiving, as UX and usability will be the main focus and not yield any information on app suitability.

The Challenges of Mental Health Apps:

  • Concerns about lack of efficacy-data and science-support
  • Concerns about app privacy and security research
  • Need for mental health professionals’ support
  • Lack of professional standardized evaluation and rating
  • Lack of regulated development methodology
  • Low evidence base
  • Being considered as a treatment instead of a supporting tool
  • Offer a strong science base while being engaging and user-friendly

The Capabilities of Mental Health Apps

  • Overcomes barriers of traditional methods in cost, access, and stigma
  • Accessibility for anyone with a smartphone or tablet
  • Easy, cost-effective, and “on-the-go” solutions
  • Help to augment treatment, self-help, and self-management
  • Allow data collection with the potential to improve patient care
  • Support during times and in places where health professionals aren’t available
  • Assistance in between sessions
  • Maintenance of good mental state with no serious illnesses

Top Mental Health Apps

Today's digital age makes it easier to keep up with your mental health. There are a variety of apps that can help you find peace and calm in the palm of your hand. They can be used for meditation, therapy access, stress relief, and even depression management. However, not all apps are created equal. Some might have incorrect information or be too expensive for what they offer.

1. Calm

Meditation

Calm is a meditation app to help people relax, focus and sleep better. The app offers guided meditations of diverse lenghts, soothing sounds, relaxing music, sleep stories, breathing exercises, and masterclasses. It also has daily challenges that can help with anxiety or depression. It was created by ex-Google employees Andy Puddicombe and Michael Acton Smith in 2012. Calm's mission statement is "to create the simplest and most human way of improving our health."

Calm’s commitment is the development of an app that’s science-based and shows rigorous research. They count on the support of academic researchers and clinicians that review and guide the work done for the app, with Jennifer Huberty, Ph.D. as the Director of the Science Advisory Board. Calm is also the subject of many research publications, carries ongoing data analysis for closed studies, and recruits people for new science investigations, all with the goal to prove the effectiveness of the app, backed with data.

This lightweight application is free and contains no ads. A subset of programs and features come with no cost. There are in-app purchases, for the content that’s only available with an optional paid subscription, ranging from 14.99 to 69.99 dollars. The app has been downloaded over 10 million times in Google Play and it’s positioned as #9 in the Health & Fitness category in App Store.

Ratings: 4.3 Play Store (439k reviews) & 4.8 Apple Store (1.3M reviews)
Awards & Recognitions:  “App of the Year in 2017” and “Best of 2018” by Apple. “Editor’s Choice award 2018” by Google Play.

2. Fabulous

Routine planner & habit builder

The Fabulous is a routine planner and habit builder mobile application that will help users gain discipline and structure in the day-to-day life. It works with a systemic progression and repetition of tiny habits, to help form profound long-term changes. The app also offers lifestyle advice to its users and enables them to create daily programs and maintain schedules to achieve goals. The Fabulous was founded in 2013 by Amine Laadhari and Sami Hassine and is based in Paris.

Fabulous was developed in Duke’s Behavioral Economics Lab, founded on principles of behavioral psychology and design. To solidify their scientific approach in habit-forming, they work closely with the research team at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. The “Make me fabulous sessions” are created with researchers and updated with new insights from scientific studies, they include physical exercise, stress management, concentration, and mood uplifting exercises.

The app has over 25 million downloads worldwide and around 1M monthly active users. Free for download and the onboarding program, it offers a 7-day premium trial and charges an annual fixed fee - price differs on location. The app constantly evolves based on user feedback. Co-funder, Sami Ben Hassine shares some of the decisions behind the app’s development in order to create a successful app.

Ratings: 4.6 Play Store (430k reviews) & 4.8 Apple Store (1.3M reviews)
Awards & Recognitions: “Best Apps 2018” (Self-Care) by App Store, “Best App” finalist by Google Play, Google’s “Material Design Award” winner, “Editor’s app choice”

3. MindShift CBT

Anxiety and Panic Relief

The MindShift CBT app is a free self-help tool that allows users to identify and challenge their thoughts that are causing anxiety, stress, or depression. Through sets of questions, the user can find out what moods are stemming from, how to deal with them, and where to look for more support. The app was created by psychologists for everyone to have access to mental health support and for people that didn't know where to go for help.

The app is a completely free scientifically-based tool that uses clinically recommended solutions based on CBT. Its features help develop healthier thinking habits, relaxing audios, and activities to overcome challenges, it also offers tools for quick anxiety management and a “find help” option. It’s supported by the University of British Colombia, University of Waterloo, Simon Fraser University, and Mayo Clinic. It conducts research studies and works thanks to donations. 

The app allows you to daily check-in and track the progress of your entries to better understand anxiety levels and moods. It offers goal-setting features to keep the user motivated and a clean, user-friendly design for intuitive usage. The users can also share their progress and check-ins with therapists, to help them better track and support treatment goals.

Ratings: 4 Play Store (1k+ reviews) & 4.3 Apple Store (200+ reviews)
Awards & Recognitions: “Best apps 2019” by Healthline

4. Betterhelp

Online therapy and counseling

BetterHelp is an online portal and app designed as an easy way for people to connect with counselors anytime, anywhere. It provides quick access to mental health professionals. It can provide therapy sessions via chat, messages, calls, or video calls, giving individuals freedom and accessibility while maintaining privacy and anonymity when looking for professional help. BetterHelp was founded in 2013 by Alon Matas and Danny Bragonier, and acquired by Teladoc, Inc. in 2015.

Instead of creating an AI therapy app or self-improvement tools, this tech solution focused on taking the science of psychology and counseling and making it accessible to people as a direct-to-consumer mental health service, with over 3 thousand therapists hired. Their remote solution became really useful during COVID lock-downs and online-routines spikes. 

The online counseling and therapy services are provided through web-based interaction as well as phone and text communication. The app is free but the services have different rates. It’s possible to do a free trial or catch a promotion or mental health campaign that offers free therapy for an amount of time. The app excels at being a well-known and easy-to-use platform, with affordable prices.

Ratings: 4.6 Play Store (10k+ reviews) & 4.5 Apple Store (2k reviews)
Awards & Recognitions: “Best Large Service - Online Therapy Awards 2021” by verywell mind

5. DownDog Yoga

Yoga, meditation & exercise

DownDog Yoga is an app that creates a unique, personalized yoga practice every time. Making yoga accessible, approachable, and convenient, with highly customizable practices, with selective options like practice length, level of difficulty, body part focus, type of practice, voice choice, music type - and volume for each of the last two - the amount of instruction, sequence speed, savasana time. All of this resulting in over 60,000 different configurations. 

The app’s description doesn’t claim any mental health-related benefits, nor help with stress or anxiety, just purely yoga-related features that the app offers. However, on Twitter they mentioned that they've partnered up with the UBC to study the effect of doing Yoga at home on mental health. That being said, there are also non-related articles and studies showing that a regular practice of yoga reduces stress and anxiety, decreases levels of cortisol, related to depression, and improves mood and fatigue.

The app offers very detailed points of customization to make each practice unique. It counts with high-quality recordings of video, voice, and music, and a pre-downloading feature to avoid buffering. The app has really high reviews on both app-distribution services and memberships cost $7.99 per month or $49.99 per year (price variations based on location) for this and the rest of their apps. However, it’s possible to catch really good promotions and for over a year during COVID, the app was completely free for teachers, students, and health professionals as a way of supporting mental health. 

Ratings: 4.9 Play Store & Apple Store (200k+ & 254k+ reviews)
Awards & Recognitions: “Fit Tech Award” 2020 & 2021 by Women’sHealth

6. Gratitude Journal

Affirmations Journal & Vision Board

Gratitude Journal is an app to help cultivate the habit of gratitude and positive thinking through daily entries of thoughts and gratifying happenings. The app allows users to write thoughts and feelings into a neatly organized diary-like document on their phone with categorization for easier search later on. The vision-board features allow users to create collages with images and texts and counts with push notifications with kind daily reminders of entries, positive quotes, and self-reflective questions.

The app was built out of the founder’s personal need to bring self-transformation and by recommendation from his therapist to practice more gratitude. It was not developed with the support of a research team, but it offers a tool to help with practice and habit that has science-backed benefits. It can lower symptoms of depression, boost happiness, and improvements in well-being.

The app is lightweight and free, it offers in-app purchases with costs varying on the membership type. Contains color personalization and additional security set-ups with fingerprints or passcodes. It uses reminders, home-screen widgets, and access to previous entries, to motivate users to revisit the app for further use and a continuous state of gratitude. The development team is on a constant lookout for users' reviews and feedback to work on updates and giving responses to any concerns users may have. 

Ratings: 4.8 Play Store (27k+ reviews) & 4.9 Apple Store (17k reviews)

In a nutshell

Mental health apps are a great way to take care of your mental state and get the support you need. However, not all of them provide an effective methodology that is backed by science. On the other side, health professionals lack application development and product design knowledge. This lack of knowledge for both doctors and app creators makes it difficult to create efficient products with clinical efficacy.