HealthMental Health


How effective are mental health apps?

Researchers at the University of New England looked at five different apps to see how effective they were in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
Posted at 7:08 PM, Mar 09, 2023

Shravya Pant is among the millions who’ve turned to their smartphones to find comfort. 

"It really did help me sort of ground myself take away some of the stress," Pant said. "In some ways, it's scarier to talk to a person than to just have an app guide you through stuff."

The freshman at Northwestern University says the stresses of academia led her to "Calm," a smartphone app for mindfulness, that rose to the top of downloads for mediation apps. 

"I found that it was really accessible and easy to use. You can do it in your own time, you don't have to make the effort of like scheduling the appointment," Pant said.

There are more than 10,000 mental health apps available to download.  

A simple scroll will reveal options designed to help users with everything from managing stress to accessing therapy. 

Interest in mental wellness apps skyrocketed in 2020 — as did business. 

Worldwide spending on mental wellness apps spiked by over 80% between 2020 and 2022, according to Deloitte, generating over $490 million in spending last year. 

But do they produce results? 

Simon Goldberg is an assistant psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. He’s conducted studies on the effectiveness of meditation apps. 

"There's reasonably good data at this point that meditation apps, when compared to weightless controls, are effective in reducing things like depression, anxiety, stress," Goldberg said.

Similar studies into the topic are ongoing. 

Researchers at the University of New England looked at five different apps to see how effective they were in reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression. 

But they concluded there isn’t enough of an evidence base to reach a clear answer just yet. Researchers like Goldberg say a potential downside of these apps is the lack of face-to-face connection.  

"People aren't getting the sort of juicy interpersonal interaction and support that you get from something like individual psychotherapy or something like a group based psychotherapy, which a lot of the mindfulness interventions are delivered in groups." Goldberg said.

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Outside of mental wellness apps there are other options, providing users access to teletherapy with a licensed counselor. 

Sessions are taken via video, phone call or text messages. They’re providing new access to people with disabilities or those in rural communities. 

"It’s pretty clear that people are benefiting from delivery in that way and in a way that can expand access," Goldberg said.

Goldberg added while there is more widespread use of these apps, there is no widespread regulation around them. 

"It's kind of a little bit of a wild west period in digital mental health where there's a lot out there, people are engaging with things and the regulation, it's a new sort of ecosystem of regulation and it's not entirely clear how that should be done," Goldberg said.

Some companies have drawn scrutiny. 

BetterHelp, an online counseling service, allegedly shared customer health data to advertisers like Facebook and Google despite promises to keep the information private. 

The company recently agreed in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to pay back $7.8 million to customers. 

In a statement, BetterHelp said its practices were "industry standard" and said it is "committed to the privacy" of its users. 

Researchers like Goldberg advise speaking with a medical professional if you feel more help is needed. 

After using wellness apps like "Calm" and "Headspace," Shrayva Pant decided to explore in-person counseling where she says she felt the difference. 

"I think we were able to have a lot more real conversations or like connection when it was in person," Pant said.

But she added the emerging options of apps provided her a bridge, to better her mental wellness and build toward her future. 

"I think it's just like a good starting point, if you don't feel comfortable, like talking about it or can't really synthesize like, what's going on," Pant said.