How to find the best mental health app for your needs

If you’re looking for a way to start a mindfulness practice, reduce stress, or manage a mental health issue, you might be drawn to one of the many mental health apps available. And with cost being a major barrier To access traditional therapy, cheap or free apps can be an interesting alternative.

But are these apps really effective in controlling mental health issues? It depends on the specific application and what you want to use it for, experts told TODAY. And there are a few key privacy and health issues to keep in mind before you start using one.

Do mental health apps actually work?

First, it’s important to recognize the wide variety of mental health apps that exist. Some apps (like Calm and Headspace) are more generally focused on wellness, mindfulness, or stress reduction, while others can be tailored to a specific mental health condition. There are also telehealth services, like Talkspace and BetterHelp, which connect users to therapists and counselors for therapy via text, phone or video.

“We don’t have a lot of research on (the mental health apps you can get in the App Store), partly because there aren’t general regulatory bodies guaranteeing their effectiveness,” Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association, told TODAY.

Apps like these cannot claim to address a specific mental health condition unless they go through Food and Drug Administration regulatory processes, Wright explained. “So they can say things like, ‘We treat stress, we teach mindfulness,’ but none of the apps in the direct-to-consumer market can claim to treat anxiety or depression,” he said. she declared.

And because these apps are generally not regulated like other health products, no one makes sure the information they provide is accurate, Wright said. The potential for misinformation about the treatment of mental health conditions is one of the biggest concerns in the field regarding apps, she added.

But that doesn’t mean these apps aren’t useful. “Some of the trends we’ve seen are that people who are randomized to use (apps) in a randomized trial tend to show reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress quite consistently. “, Simon Goldberg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, told TODAY.

“A lot of the barriers people have to in-person therapy aren’t there for mobile technology,” said Goldberg, co-author of a meta-review research into the usefulness of mental health and mindfulness apps earlier this year. “They’re portable. And they’re often much less intensive and cheaper.”

The study looked at 14 previous meta-analyses of mental health apps, including data from nearly 48,000 participants, and found generally positive results. In particular, the apps appeared to provide modest but consistent improvements in feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, and general well-being compared to inactive controls (such as being put on a waitlist).

This study also found that text-based interventions might be particularly helpful for those who want to quit smoking. And Wright noted that text-based crisis lines for those with suicidal thoughts can also be very effective.

In general, though, “it’s safe to say the evidence is still evolving,” Dr. John Torous, director of the division of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said today. “We’re seeing exciting pilot studies that say that in certain circumstances, for certain people, it could be really helpful,” he said. But as studies progress, the picture becomes more complicated.

For example, he pointed to a new study involving an app designed to help patients with schizophrenia alongside standard treatments. The researchers compared the effects of the app to a placebo app, which was just a simple countdown.

The results? “The placebo app did as well as the real one,” Torous said. “It’s not that apps don’t help, but how useful are they really? We certainly don’t want to have things that aren’t better than digital watches.”

Is it okay to use a mental health app instead of traditional therapy?

All the experts TODAY spoke to agreed that not everyone needs the traditional model of in-person therapy. So it’s usually okay to try out a few apps and see if they provide the kind of service you’re looking for.

If you are someone who could benefit from more traditional advice, an application can always be a good first step. But that probably won’t be enough as the only form of mental health care.

Generally, if you feel that your mental health symptoms are interfering with your work, studies or relationships, or if you are not able to take care of yourself, these are red flags to consider a therapy. But these days, “if you even remotely think you could be helped by a therapist, try to seek out a therapist because there’s no reason to wait until there’s a crisis,” Wright said. .

“There’s also no harm in starting with an app,” she continued. “Just acknowledging that it may not solve the problem that really needs to be solved.”

Keep in mind that apps that help you track things like mental health symptoms, emotions, and triggers or that prompt you to practice the skills you learn in counseling can be helpful additions to traditional therapy. . You might also find it helpful to engage with apps that keep track or prompt you to log your other healthy behaviors, like physical activity, socializing, and sleep, which can also impact mental health. .

It can be helpful to use an app in “any way that augments or complements what you do, whether it’s bringing new data to a clinic visit or practicing skills you acquired in person,” Torous said.

He also said that people who are on a waiting list for therapy, taking a break from therapy, or who have already had therapy and just want a little guidance can get the most out of the apps. This is because they will be highly motivated and will already have an idea of ​​what they want out of it.

To find an app that might work for you…

First, think about what you’re really trying to get out of an app, Torous said. Looking for something to help you deal with work stress and sleep better? Or are you interested in how a new exercise habit might affect your symptoms of anxiety and depression? Or maybe you want to practice the cognitive behavioral therapy skills you are learning from your therapist.

“The good news is that a lot of these apps have trial periods,” Golberg said. He recommended doing a little “shopping around” and trying out different apps to see which ones you like and actually use. “You can download another app in seconds,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to change therapists.”

Also, check to see if the company has a privacy policy — and read the fine print carefully, Wright advised. “These apps take a lot of personal information, and they don’t expect to be HIPAA compliant,” she said. “So they can take your personal health data and sell it in a way that really puts people in vulnerable positions.”

In fact, a Mozilla Foundation A report earlier this month found that many popular mental health apps “regularly share data, allow weak passwords, target vulnerable users with personalized ads, and feature vague and poorly written privacy policies.”

Once you have a general idea of ​​what you want and what kind of privacy policy you are willing to accept, check out the Mobile Health Index and Navigation Database. This database, put together by Torous and his colleagues, lets you sort mental health apps by the types of features you’re looking for.

With this tool, the hope is that “you can at least try to make a more informed decision based on more relevant information,” Torous said.

If you don’t know where to start, it’s noted that apps from the US Department of Veterans Affairs are generally free and generally have good data policies (and you don’t have to be a veteran to use them).

Finally, don’t overlook virtual therapy. Although text-based therapy research is still ongoing, there is now plenty of solid evidence to suggest that virtual therapy over the phone or video chat can be just as effective as in-person therapy. And, due to the pandemic, many other therapists are offering these options as part of their services, Wright said.

Some health insurance plans cover virtual therapy services, like Talkspace, so check with your insurer to find out what forms of digital mental health services are covered. Your employer may also provide free or low-cost access to a mental health app.

Other ways to access low-cost or free therapy:

Therapy can be expensive and many therapists do not accept insurance. But, before you rely on an app (or if you’ve used apps and haven’t found them useful), know that there are other ways to find less expensive advice.

Of course, that’s not to say that a good therapist who works for your budget is necessarily easy to find, but counseling may be more accessible than you think. Here are some ways to find therapy at a lower cost:

  • Check training programs at colleges or universities near you. “They often have graduate students in training who offer lower cost treatment options,” Wright said.
  • Don’t overlook out-of-network options if you have insurance. Sometimes going out of the network “gives you more flexibility in choosing a therapist,” Wright said. “It often requires a bit more paperwork on your part,” but you may find your out-of-network refunds are worth it.
  • Ask your therapist if they offer a sliding scale, Wright suggested. Even a temporary fee reduction may be possible.

Consider searching online for community health centers in your area that offer mental health services, Wright said.

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