Digital Mental Health
Updated: Apr 4, 2021
Digital mental health is an immense industry yet has very few reliable technologies. Here's my guide to mental health applications:
I previously worked in the field of digital mental health through the University of California, Irvine. Under the fantastic guidance of Dr. Stephen Scheuller I worked as a researcher and web developer for One Mind PsyberGuide, a site that reviews and rates mental health applications and provides a multitude of resources. If you want to learn a little more about my technical work at OMPG checkout my portfolio article. However, I want to use this post for the psychological side of my work, what I've learned about digital mental health, and a few of my favorite applications. I am no longer an affiliate of One Mind PsyberGuide and therefore my views are entirely my own.
What are mental health applications?
Digital mental health is better known in the form of mental health applications such as for a smartphone or computer. They make receiving care quick and affordable. Many apps can be customized to an individual‘s condition and come with a plethora of applicable treatment types. I'll go into more detail about the different features of these apps below.
During the COVID-19 quarantine the industry has exploded given that more people are alone than ever before leading more people to digital services. However, this has also had a significant toll on people's mental health. During quarantine about 40% of adults experienced some kind of anxiety or depression which is up by 30% from just a year before. Other issues like substance use, food consumption, and sleep problems have seen similar spikes. So what's the issue? A decline in mental health has seen an incline in services. That's good right? Well...
Very few mental health applications have any proven efficacy.
In other words, while they may have all the bells and whistles: a beautiful user interface, metrics of user improvement, tout being "based off of years of research", etc. those are not the same as proven results. They often incorporate treatments with proven efficacy, such as various types of therapy (CBT, ACT, etc.) or meditations, but have very little studies to show their services yield similar results. As well...
Most of them are pretty similar
Standard characteristics of mental health apps are:
Survey(s) to customize your experience
Daily mood assessments and charts
- These are usually very cool and futuristic looking
They also sometimes have
Solo or group chat messaging
Having these features does not make an app bad or stereotypical because all of them can be quite helpful. I just want anyone who is looking for an app to not be satisfied just because an app has any or all of these and looks comprehensive. I suggest comparing multiple apps because one may be more beneficial for your circumstance than the first one or two you come across.
The spike in services is also due to the feasibility of creating an app in the first place. This leads to poor quality service and often times little to no help. This is essentially the reason for the conception of the PsyberGuide. Imagine working with an app for a number of weeks, getting positive scores on the various tests and being told you're doing well but you don't actually feel any better. Now you're telling yourself "maybe it's really me whose at fault and there's nothing I can do about it." That is never the case.
The PsyberGuide gives individuals who are struggling with their mental health clear and straightforward reviews of the credibility of hundreds of mental health apps. It cuts out the bullshit. It rates apps on a 5 point credibility scale based on:
- Consumer Ratings
- Proposed Goal
- Evidence Based Content
- Software Updates
- Clinical Input in Development
- Research on Development Process
- Efficacy of Other Product
- Research Independence and Review
- Research Base
We'll use their ratings for efficacy and credibility below.
So what are some of the best mental health apps?
To start lets look at the the most downloaded mental health apps (2018). Click the app names below for the iOS link. Let's start with the best.
Headspace is the most most downloaded app specifically aimed at mental health (the scale above is for general cognitive training). It has a total of 25 million downloads and is the highest rated app on the PsyberGuide(PG) based on not just credibility (5/5) but User Experience(4.97), and Transparency(Acceptable) as well.
"Stress less. Sleep soundly. Get happy. Learn the life-changing skills of meditation and mindfulness in a few minutes a day with Headspace. Choose from hundreds of guided meditations on everything from stress management and anxiety management to sleep, personal growth, and mind-body health."
Quite objectively, Headspace is the best mental app currently on the market by every metric. However, it focuses on meditation and mindfulness. If that doesn't seem like your cup of tea, check out the apps below.
Peak is the most downloaded cognitive training app in the world by a margin of 15 million (42m total).
"Peak is the fun, free brain training workout designed around you. Peak uses brain games and puzzles to challenge memory, language and critical thinking to keep your mind active."
PG Score: 4.33/5
While the app isn't marketed for mental health specifically, it provides great games for keeping your brain active and has the research to back it up.
Lumosity is the second most downloaded cognitive training app with a 27 million total downloads
"Play brain training games and keep your mind sharp. Lumosity offers 40+ games and puzzles that test & train memory, logic, math skills & more to give your mind a workout."
PG Score: 4.33/5
Similar to Peak, Luminosity focuses on general brain training, showing why downloads may not necessarily be the best way to go when finding a specific mental health app.
Other types of apps
Calm-Sleep, Meditation, and Relaxation.
"Join the millions experiencing lower stress, less anxiety, and more restful sleep with our guided meditations, Sleep Stories, breathing programs, masterclasses, and relaxing music. Recommended by top psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts."
PG Score: 4.67/5
An abundance of celebrities have been featured speaking on Calm including Kate Winslet, Mathew McConaughey, Harry Styles, Lucy Liu and Kevin Hart. They use calm voices to guide users through different breathing, sleeping, and meditation practices. I personally enjoy Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) and can't actually imagine Kevin Hart guiding me to sleep.
Talkspace-Counseling and Therapy
"Talkspace is the most convenient and affordable way to improve your mental health. Get matched with a licensed therapist in your state from the comfort of your device, and message via text, audio, and video."
PG Score: 3.67/5
If you're looking for something a bit more clinical I suggest going with Talkspace. It connects you with a real clinician similar to actual therapy without the hassle of having to go in person.
Woebot-Chatbot/AI, Mood Disorders, Stress and Anxiety
"Woebot sends over a million messages per week to help users with everyday stress and challenges such as symptoms of depression, anxiety, relationship problems, procrastination, loneliness, grief, addiction, pain management and more."
PG Score: 4.67/5
If you're not looking to to talk with a real person or just want someone to keep you company, Woebot is a must. You can talk to it at anytime and with proven efficacy the advice it gives in return can actually be quite helpful.
Shadow's Edge-Gamified, Mood Disorders, Stress/Anxiety
"Do you want to live a life full of happiness, build resilience and support your mental health & anxiety relief? Welcome to Shadow's Edge - become a graffiti creator, express your thoughts in your personal self-care journal and discover stress relief games!"
Unofficial PG Rating: 2.33/5
*The rating is low due to its lack of research, however, the company has a study that is soon to be released which I believe will increase the score. I have the unofficial rating because I reviewed it myself but it has yet to be released on One Mind PsyberGuide.
I reviewed this game personally and enjoyed it so much that it hurt to give it such a low score therefore I left a 5 star review on the Apple app store and the following remarks: "It reduces the stigma that most teens face when taking measures for mental health help due to its ‘cool’ content. I also especially like it’s skateboarder/graffiti underground vibe given that most kids turn to that lifestyle (deviancy) when feeling unaccepted by family and or society. Pure Genius. Therefore I encourage parents of children who are or may be heading towards that path to take this game into consideration."
While I couldn't list all the best apps above I encourage you to check out the site One Mind PsyberGuide. It provides reviews of all the best mental apps and allows you to sort them by device, condition, treatment type, price and more.
If there's any other apps you would recommend feel free to leave links to them in the comments below. As well, if you've tried out any of my recommendations let me know what your experience was like.
If you're interested, check out my other articles on mental health such as speaking about our feelings and keeping our mind active. If you're struggling with anything you can always feel free to reach out or checkout the numbers listed below. Thanks for reading!