Helpful Hints

Getting a Read on the Mental Health App Landscape

Written by Marley Storch and Avigayil Shapiro.

Tried making eye-contact lately? In an elevator, on the subway, crossing the street…seems everyone is looking down at their cell phones. No wonder: 81% of Americans own smartphones. And with smartphones comes access to millions of apps!

While all these apps at our fingertips don’t help with eye-contact, health care professionals (and the tech industry) are hoping that they can help in some other ways. For example, apps have the potential to bring useful components of well-tested treatments to people who might not otherwise have access. They may be a useful supplement to care. And for some, they may offer a way to monitor continued progress (and catch lapses) after treatment has ended.

Image by Alex Hu from Pixabay

Taken together, these possibilities suggest that apps may transform the landscape of treatment for mental health problems. And we know that the need for transformation in the US is great; 44 million American adults have a mental health condition, and 1 in 5, or 9 million Americans, experiencing a mental health condition reported having an unmet need. A recent article in the NY Times describing an innovative partnership between the state of California and Silicon Valley sums it up well:

“The potential for digital technology to transform mental health care is enormous, and some 10,000 apps now crowd the market, each promising to soothe one psychological symptom or another. Smartphones allow near continuous monitoring of people with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, disorders for which few new treatments are available.”

Mental health related apps offer meditation (e.g., Headspace, Mood, Calm) mood tracking, (e.g., Moodnotes, Moodpath) and coping strategies (e.g., Mindstrong, 7 cups). They seek to reach individuals with and without formal psychiatric diagnoses.

Are there apps for people with eating disorders?

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

Here is a sample of apps targeted at individuals with disordered eating and eating disorders (Please note, apps mentioned are for illustration only and not meant as endorsements):

Recovery Record. This app is popular with those in treatment for eating disorders as it includes self-monitoring; users can log meals and report their mood/emotions, and coping strategies. It allows customization of goals and provides links to a treatment team. It also contains components of CBT-based interventions, offers assistance with goal setting, and the ability to set reminders. Additional features include meal planning, rewards, and affirmations.

Rise Up + Recover. This app also includes self-monitoring (food records, thoughts, feelings, urges to use compensatory behaviors), and encourages the use of coping skills during times of distress. Meal data can be exported to share easily with members of the user’s treatment team.

Noom. This app was developed specifically as an add-on for the guided self-help version of cognitive behavioral therapy for binge eating. It is designed with long-term maintenance of behavior change in mind. This app is all about building better habits when it comes to eating, exercise and thinking healthfully about reasonable, sustainable goals. Trained coaches provide support. It has been studied in people with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, and found to be helpful in reducing the frequency of binge eating episodes.

How can apps be chosen responsibly?

The options are evolving faster than research can possibly keep up. And there are certainly risks to using certain apps; for example, weight loss and fitness apps that focus on calorie intake and/or calories burned may encourage users to restrict or set unrealistic goals. This poses a risk for developing disordered eating and is frankly counterproductive for someone with an eating disorder.

To be an educated consumer when choosing from the App Store, talk to a treatment provider who knows you well and/or read up on reviews from some reputable clearinghouse sites including:

These sites review categories such as: credibility (is there research to back up claims?); user experience (how easy is it to navigate?); and transparency (how they collect, store and keep information private).

Are apps the wave of the health care future? With no crystal ball, we can only guess that they will be created and refined to fulfill unmet needs. Consultations with professionals remain essential for proper diagnosis and treatment plans, and to help guide which app can complement evidence-based therapies.

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