Help! Are self-help apps useful in dealing with my mental health?

There is hardly an aspect of life that has remained untouched by technology and the internet. The internet has changed our lives in many ways and is here to stay. The recent years have seen a proliferation of mental health apps offering everything from personal counsellors just a call/text away to general advice in dealing with stress, depression and anxiety, to anonymous peer support groups to specialised psychotherapies all wrapped into attractive apps just a click away. But can apps effectively address mental health concerns, just how trustworthy are they and how does one choose among the many available options are often questions that people have.

Many studies have been conducted around the world to understand the usefulness of internet-interventions for mental health. In general, findings have been promising and seem to suggest that internet-interventions could be as effective as attending face-to-face therapy sessions for milder problems.

Self-help apps that include some level amount of guidance by a trained helper/counsellor via phone/text/mail are helpful to keep you motivated and monitor your symptoms and progress. particularly when it includes some amount of guidance from a therapist or psychologist. The growing number of apps available for use in the market stand testimony to their popularity. However users need to understand that several apps in the public domain have not gone through scientific evaluation and some may have been developed without involvement of a mental health professional. This in turn means that users need to be cautious when relying on self-help apps for mental health care and choose and use them wisely.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Mental health apps have several advantages that make them popular. Many freely available apps have been developed with the aim of making mental health care more accessible. Apps address the time and cost factor as they can be accessed at one’s own time and place of convenience and are free of cost or cost minimal at most. Many apps also provide an option of anonymity that encourages people to seek help for problems they may not wish to discuss with others.

However they are not without their share of disadvantages. Questions about the legitimacy and scientific basis for suggestions provided and the security of data being collected remain and many people find apps to be an impersonal way of dealing with one’s problems as suggestions are often generic and not tailor-made to one’s problem. While apps can be a useful way to deal with mental health concerns, it is recommended to use your discretion and make an informed decision in choosing one.

How do I choose one?

  • Here is a brief checklist you could use when selecting a mental health app:
  • Does the app provide sufficient information asto for whom and for what purpose it maybe useful and what are its limitations (for what purpose it may not be useful)?

  • Is the app relevant to the problem that I am facing? Does it include an initial screening or an evaluation to help you understand whether the app is relevant for your current problems or is suitable for the severity of the problem you may be having? It may be a good idea to consult a mental health professional to understand the nature and severity of the mental health problem and discuss /jointly plan regarding using a self-help app based on this evaluation.

  • Does it provide any details about the developers and professionals who developed the content?

  • Is there some description of the research basis for the content included/ any study which explored the utility of the particular app?

  • Does it provide any resources to read further about the content or understand its authenticity?Does it provide details regarding storage and security of data?

  • Are any contact details available for clarifications or further help if needed?

It would also be important to keep in mind that you would need to give any app a fair try by using it consistently and implementing the suggestions provided before deeming it useful or not. Of course, apps cannot be used to make a clinical diagnosis but they could help you understand some of the problems you are facing and help you develop skills to tackle them.

One of the most important points is that self-help app users need to develop sufficient knowledge and skills to realise when self-help methods are failing/unlikely to be sufficient so that they are able to step up to a higher level of intervention , for e.g. via face to face professional care.

We hope these tips help you take a step towards tending to your mental health!

Expert: Sindhuja Sudarshan, Clinical Psychologist,

PhD Scholar, Dept. of Clinical Psychology,

NIMHANS, Bangalore