For the past two years, your mood has been low; you’ve lost your appetite; and you can’t sleep well. Your family is worried because you’re not interested in cooking or reading anymore, things you used to enjoy. During the pandemic, the stress of balancing your remote work, childcare, household management, and caring for an ill father has changed your routine. After searching for a therapist online, you found the earliest available appointment to be months off. A good friend recommended mobile therapy apps, but did they really work?
What does the research say?
Apps for treating mental illness claim to be able to treat depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses, but they don’t require therapy sessions. It doesn’t take long at all, and everyone with a smartphone has instant access. Many apps are free. If this sounds too unbelievable to be true, you’re probably right.
A study of almost 50,000 patients found no convincing evidence that any mobile app intervention improved outcomes related to people’s anxiety, depression, smoking, drinking, thoughts of suicide or feelings of well-being. While this sounds unfortunate for the researchers, this may be related their study methods in which they grouped interventions together that were completely different. If a small trial has a positive effect but its effects are combined with other less helpful interventions, then the result may seem unhelpful.
Treatments work when people believe in them. A study compared the popular meditation apps Headspace and Calm to a sham version which included guided breathing exercises but without the active component mindfulness. Participants who received either the active or sham version of the intervention reported improvements in critical thinking and mindfulness.
CBT programs for depression are computerized cognitive behavioral therapy programs. Researchers from the UK found no difference between Beating the Blues and MoodGym and care as usual in primary health care.
What can we make of these results?
We don’t yet know enough about the mental health effects of using mobile apps to be able to give any advice. Mobile apps may be helpful for people who are going through a rough time, but they’re not always effective. Will it help you feel better? It probably won’t help, but if you believe in it, then maybe it will.
Mobile apps can complement therapy
Interestingly, all forms of psychotherapy seem to result in similar amounts of symptom improvement. The most important factor in helping patients make significant progress is the relationship between the patient and the therapist. Therapy involves having a safe place to talk about your stressors, validating your concerns in the eyes of another, and building a trusting relationship. Mobile apps remove the human element from the therapeutic relationship, which we already know is an important ingredient in treatment success.## Inputs However, mobile apps could complement therapy by providing symptom trackers, reminders of skills, and social features to help people set goals and share their progress.
When mobile apps are not enough