Smartphone Apps for Mental Health

By R. Ryan S Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Most people today are familiar with apps for smartphones.  There are apps for many different purposes including mental health. In fact in 2015, mental health apps made up almost a third of disease specific apps in app marketplaces (1).

Some but not all apps are evidence based, researched, and known to work and some other apps are based on evidence based skills.

A 2017 meta review of studies looked at 190 individual papers researching 147 unique digital health tools and found that there may be some benefit of using apps for depression and anxiety but unclear benefit for other disorders at the time of publication. They also found research and method limitations for many studies (2).

A recent study looked at an app called “Virtual hope box” (VHB) (3).

Who was studied? (3)

  • 118 U.S. service veterans receiving mental health treatment and had a recent history of suicidal ideation.
  • They were divided into two groups.
  • One group received mental health treatment as usual supplemented with the VHB app and another group received treatment as usual supplemented with printed materials about coping with suicidality over a 12-week period.

What was measured? (3)

Using validated scales, the study authors measured coping, suicidal ideation, reasons for living, perceived stress and interpersonal needs at various points of the study.

What were the results? (3)

  • Participants using virtual hope box app showed improvements in their ability to cope with unpleasant emotions and thoughts over time.
  • Users found the app helpful for relaxation and distraction or inspiration when feeling distressed, when emotions were overwhelming, or when they felt like hurting themselves.
  • Participants found it easy to use, helpful in dealing with stress and emotional difficulties, likely to use in the future, and would recommended to others.

What are some caveats?

  • This is a small study and may not be applicable to everyone.
  • There are many apps for mental health but research in this area is limited.
  • Newer apps are being introduced frequently.
  • This is a new field of research, and as we learn more, study designs and outcome measures are being improved upon.
  • Not all the apps are free.
  • Mental health apps do not take place of professional treatment.
  • Your mental health professional may be helpful in considering the right app mental health for you.
  • There are many apps that use evidence based techniques such as apps for cognitive behavior therapy, relaxation skills, prolonged exposure, dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness based apps, etc.
    • One such example is the OSUCCS app, which can be obtained from the app store.

How much time are you spending on your phone? How are apps in general impacting your mental health? Which app is helping you and which is not?

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

References:

  1. IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. (2015). Patient adoption of mHealth: Use, evidence and remaining barriers to mainstream acceptance. Parsippany, NJ: IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
  2. Hollis, C., Falconer, C. J., Martin, J. L., Whittington, C., Stockton, S., Glazebrook, C. and Davies, E. B. (2017), Annual Research Review: Digital health interventions for children and young people with mental health problems – a systematic and meta-review. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 58: 474–503. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12663
  3. Nigel E. Bush, Ph.D., Derek J. Smolenski, Ph.D., Lauren M. Denneson, Ph.D., Holly B. Williams, B.A., Elissa K. Thomas, L.P.N., C.C.R.C., Steven K. Dobscha, M.D. A Virtual Hope Box: Randomized Controlled Trial of a Smartphone App for Emotional Regulation and Coping With Distress.  Psychiatric Services 2017; 68:330–336; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.201600283.