There are dozens of smartphone apps that claim to treat depression and anxiety, but few are supported by research-based evidence. Still, smartphones and depression are more ubiquitous than ever. In a country where 16 million people suffer from depression and 77 percent of adults own a smartphone, are apps a viable treatment method for mental health disorders?

Treating depression and anxiety

While anxiety and depression are distinct disorders, they typically follow similar treatment steps. As How-To Geek summarized in a recent article for Mental Health Awareness Day, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a common approach that involves:

  1. Identifying the underlying disorder.
  2. Learning how to notice when you are starting to spiral out of control and learning strategies for short-circuiting the behavior.
  3. Practice identifying and short-circuiting the problem so that you can do it earlier and earlier in the process.
  4. Learning strategies for coping when you do spiral out of control.

Treating depression requires practicing and repeating these steps, typically with support from a therapist. The challenge is that there are lots of barriers – time, money, knowledge, motivation – to showing up at a guided session with a mental health practitioner.

So how can apps health?

The idea behind an app for depression is that it erases the barriers that keep many people from regularly getting support. Smartphone apps are accessible from almost anywhere – including environments where users feel safest – and people are more likely to participate in treatment when the technology is there to remind them.

Apps vary by the features they offer, but it’s common to include learning materials about different disorders and how they manifest, as well as guided exercises to teach coping and prevention strategies. Apps often send users reminders to help them stay on track with treatments and appointments, and many offer logs where users can record their thoughts and activities.

What the research says

Published research isn’t available for most apps on the market, but several studies do say apps can help. Specifically, mental health apps can help make therapy more accessible, efficient and portable.

A recent example is Catch It, an app that uses principles from cognitive behavioral therapy to help users manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. The app takes users through a process called “Catch it, Check it, Change it” that researchers found helped people deal with their problems in a more positive way.

Catch It is a joint project between the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester, to help users better understand their moods through use of an ongoing diary.
Published in the British Journal of Psych Open, the study of the Catch It app found that 84 percent of user-generated content was consistent with the basic concepts of CBT. As author Peter Kinderman summarized, “There were statistically significant reductions in negative mood intensity and increases in positive mood intensity. Smartphone apps have potential beneficial effects in mental health through the application of basic CBT principles.”

Ideally, smartphone apps are a corollary to traditional treatment methods like seeing a therapist or joining a support group – but they also play an important supplementary role. Research has found that mobile devices are a successful and cost effective way to reach a wide population, recruit participants and provide depression interventions.

Even doctors are getting on board

Patients are already using mental health apps, but you might imagine doctors being more skeptical. Evidence suggests otherwise. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation recently partnered with Meru Health to provide a digital program to combat burnout and depression among physicians.

As Meru Health CEO and founder Kristian Fanta describes, the intervention as “a digital therapeutic solution which is an eight week program based on scientifically-backed, evidence-based psychological components like behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based intervention.” Meru Health has built their therapy into a mobile, smartphone-based care procedure.

An ongoing challenge with app-based mental health treatments is getting the right apps into the hands of people in need. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers a useful starting place with their list of Mental Health Apps.

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