7 Mental health apps and computer programs

The move towards smartphones and tablets in recent years has seen an inflation of apps and programs designed to support people with mental health problems. These self-help applications can be a cost-effective method for delivering basic mental health and wellbeing information and support. An obvious virtue of mental health apps and programs is that they can be downloaded, often for free, and used flexibly in the users’ own time and geographic location.

Keeping track of the plethora of mobile phone apps and programs developed each year can be difficult. They are usually manualised and highly structured, often providing computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (CCBT). They are presented in a range of ways and include animations, graphics, videos, interactive episodes, homework assignments and access to supplementary resources.

The NHS Apps Library used to offer a list of mental health apps that met NHS standards, which included evidence of clinical safety, security and technical stability. However, the NHS has now decided to close the NHS Apps Library and instead link to recommended apps throughout the NHS website (see here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). The effectiveness of some mental health apps is very well evidenced, but that is not the case for all of them. Value and usefulness of mental health apps can be questioned if they are not properly evaluated.

One way to judge the quality of mental health apps is to apply criteria that seem important from a user perspective. Whittaker et al. (2012) sought feedback from users in the process of designing their depression prevention app for adolescents. The user perspective emerging from their discussions with young users pointed to the fundamental importance of aspects like realism, credibility, positivity, and simple, clear messages when creating apps. When trying out a free mental health app in the activity below you might want to consider these criteria.

Activity 19: Trying out a free mental health app

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

Search on the internet for a freely available mobile phone-based app providing mental health and wellbeing information and support. Examples for this are ‘Calm: Sleep & Meditation’ or Mindshift (free evidence-based anxiety relief).

Download a free app and try it out.

Pause for reflection

Think about your experience of using the app. Is this something that could be useful for any of your clients? Can you imagine recommending any of these programs, either on their own or to complement the counselling you provide?

7.1 Risks and challenges of mental health apps and computer programs