The United States finds itself in a mental health dilemma. With COVID-19, racial tension, and numerous other stressors pounding us daily, our psychological health is on shaky ground. We need help more than ever. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has brought to light the limitations of in-person treatment and increased our reliance on technology. So, how do you reach people that need mental health assistance in the modern age? There’s an app for that.
Why Use A Mental Health App?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), less than half of people with mental illness receive treatment for their problems annually. Considering the serious consequences of untreated issues, that is a scary thought. To recognize the value of apps, it is critical to understand the reasons that people don’t seek help in the first place, which include money, time, fear, and shame involving mental health treatment.
In addition to being able to access them from almost anywhere, apps address many of the reasons for treatment avoidance. First, you can use apps privately and don’t have to worry about the stigma of going to a mental health professional. Second, you can use them when convenient for you rather than when a therapist has availability. Next, many are free or inexpensive. Finally, you can use them at your own pace and break yourself in gradually, reducing your anxiety. While some mental health apps actually provide psychotherapy sessions via mobile devices, others help people cope with specific symptoms or simply health with mindfulness.
Apps are not meant to replace psychotherapy. They are usually psycho-educational and provide basic tools. They can help with certain problems but are usually better when used as a complementary piece to other treatment. Self-help has its limits. If you have a serious or long-standing problem, you probably need to consult a therapist.
Further, there are a lot of mental health apps out there, some less reputable than others. There are literally thousands of apps dedicated to mental health but alarmingly few possess any evidence that supports their use. Beware of apps that are not grounded in accepted psychological theory or are not approved by credentialed mental health professionals. It can be very damaging to seek help for mental health issues only to find out the “treatment” is ineffective or harmful. For example, one app for bipolar disorder advised patients who are experiencing a manic episode to drink alcohol as a coping skill. True story.
Top Free Mental Health Apps
One of the main advantages of using an app over other forms of mental health treatment is its affordability. Here are some of the top mental health apps that won’t cost you any of your hard-earned money.
- Breathe2Relax – This app is as single-minded as it gets. It doesn’t try to do anything fancy except guide you through breathing relaxation exercises. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Its breathing techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as aid with anger management.
- Mindshift – Targeted to teenagers and young adults, Mindshift uses cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) principles to help reduce anxiety. Although it was developed for young people it can be used for all ages. It is basically a CBT workbook in app form. It educates users on anxiety, allows you to track your stress levels, and helps you challenge maladaptive thinking patterns. It encourages users to face their worries rather than avoid them. The Chill Zone and Quick Relief features have tangible meditation and relaxation tools that can be utilized in the moment. A lot of resources for a free app. Makes a great companion if you are seeing a therapist who practices CBT.
- not OK – The not OK app is simple but effective. Created by two teenage siblings, it is an app you can use when you need support from others. First, you choose trusted contacts that you can contact in times of need. Next, you press a button and it sends your contacts a text alert that you require assistance. It is that easy. It even sends your GPS coordinates. Basically, it is an app that puts out a cry for help to those who care about you. Why not just send them a text, you might ask? Well, it can be incredibly hard to ask for help when you feel depressed or overwhelmed. This app makes it easier.
- PTSD Coach – This app was developed by the US VA National Center for PTSD, Dissemination, and Training Division to help soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that developed from military service. It uses CBT theory as support for its features, which include four main components: education about PTSD, assessment, coping skills, and support services. Although it was designed to target military members it can be used as a resource by anyone with PTSD. It is all free and can be a valuable tool for people who suffer from PTSD.
- What’s Up? – What’s Up? uses the principles of CBT and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as theoretical support. It is designed to help people with mood issues, stress, and anxiety. It possesses several helpful features, including a diary that helps you understand the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing as they happen. What’s Up? also teaches numerous coping strategies, including grounding exercises and breathing techniques. It even has an interactive forum for peer support. What’s Up? is user-friendly and packs a lot of features into a free app.
- Moodpath – Moodpath is not so much a treatment app as it is a screening measure for mood issues. Unlike traditional screening assessments, it collects data over a couple of weeks rather than utilizing a quick self-report. As a result, it does a good job of evaluating how you are feeling and directing you toward the appropriate type of help. Moodpath even provides you with a letter to give to a prospective treatment provider with its findings.
- Quit That! – There are a lot of habit tracker apps but this one does the job well and it is free. On its own, Quit That! is most suitable for less harmful habits. If you have a serious addiction, such as alcoholism, it will likely take more than tracking your behavior to address your problems. Still, it is a nice complement to addiction treatment. One useful feature tells you how much money you saved by not engaging in the harmful habit. You can also schedule a future time to quit so you have time to prepare yourself. Tracking the minutes that have passed since you last engaged in a harmful behavior will help motivate you toward success.
- Moodfit – This app has a ton of features that cover different aspects of mental health. Moodfit has the basic CBT mood resources but that is only a small part of what it offers. For example, you can write a daily gratitude journal to keep you feeling positive. You can record your sleep and nutrition data. You can even keep track of how much sunlight you are getting each day. It does a good job emphasizing the importance of the mind-body connection. Moodfit is a truly comprehensive all-in-one mental health resource.
Top Budget Mental Health Apps
We all like free apps but some apps are worth a small price. Here are a few inexpensive apps that have effective features:
- Sanvello (Formerly Pacifica) – We have included Sanvello under the budget apps even though the basic version is free (the free version is pretty limited). If you pay full price for premium services, it is only $8.95/month. However, it is included under some insurance plans, making it even more reasonable. Sanvello is one of the most popular apps for dealing with anxiety and stress. It includes some unique features, including “guided paths,” which teach you skills to take control of your life and build confidence. It also has some engaging guided visualizations to help with stress and anxiety. Further, it has a large community presence, including chat rooms where you can talk to others in real-time.
- Happify – Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to improve your mental health by playing games? These games are evidence-based to improve specific aspects of your life including relationships, work, and personal growth. As its name suggests, Happify is all about increasing happiness. It is free to download but you unlock a lot more services with a yearly subscription for $11.67/month. While this is bordering on the more expensive range, think about its price in relation to a therapy session.
- eMoods – This app is designed specifically for those with bipolar disorder. One of the most critical aspects of managing bipolar is recognizing the triggers that lead to manic and depressive episodes. eMoods helps users track the ups and downs to increase their insight and overall understanding of the disorder. It also generates a monthly report you can give to your therapist and/or doctor. Like many apps, it is free to download but a paid upgrade allows you to customize it to your specific preferences. At $5-10/month it is a relative bargain.
Most reputable mental health apps have no real downside as long as you have realistic expectations for their use. They will not replace psychotherapy and, in most cases, they should not be relied upon as the only form of treatment, especially for more serious problems. That being said, many apps offer valuable resources and tools to help improve a variety of psychological issues. Here’s the bottom line: If a free or budget app can help your mental health then why wouldn’t you use it?