Written by Dr. Alina Khomenko
With technology continuously and steadily evolving, various ways of helping people that are struggling with mental health issues are surfacing through the use of self-help and therapy applications (apps). Many mental health practitioners find that mental health apps are valuable additions to therapy, as they allow therapists to maintain a better connection with their clients, improve their ability to track clients’ moods, are made readily available to clients, and can be a great source of educational information for clients when their therapists are not available. On the other hand, many mental health practitioners are also cautious when recommending such apps to clients.
Given the fact that this is a fairly new area, there are downsides and many unanswered questions about current available apps that should be kept in mind. One downside to such apps is that they are not regulated (anyone can create an app, which leads to much misleading and inaccurate information being included in the apps). Another downside is that many apps are not research-based, so the methods used by the apps and the apps’ effects are often unknown. Therefore, it is important to consider apps that are based on evidence-based principles and therapeutic approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is also important to encourage therapists and clients to proceed with caution when choosing to use an app. Below are some apps that appear to be based on evidence-based principles and can be useful supplemental tools to therapy. It is important for clients to discuss the use of these apps with their therapists to determine the best and most beneficial way to use the app in conjunction with therapy.
Settle your Glitter (free):
A simple feelings check-in app that guides your child through mindful breathing exercises allowing your child to regain focus and calm. Children shake the device to shake glitter contained in a ball and then focus on their breathing as the glitter slowly settles. There is also an image of a character on the screen that gets larger and smaller, to guide the child through breathing, while the glitter settles. This app can best be enjoyed by younger children.
Mindful Minutes by Oops Yay $1.99:
An app that provides a series of relaxing meditations designed to help kids slow down and focus on one simple activity. This app has relaxing music and includes four different exercises you can do, with a fish, a balloon, a star, and a gem. Kids hold down the image as it goes up through relaxing scenery. It is a helpful calming activity and more appropriate for younger children.
Positive Penguins $0.99:
This is good for upper elementary kids who are strong readers and typers. This app helps kids figure out why they are feeling a certain way and then encourages them to think of things in a different way to reframe their negative thoughts (based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). The app uses penguin characters to guide the child through the exercises. There is also a 5 minute guided meditation.
Stop, Breathe & Think (free):
This is a free mindfulness and meditation app for children ages 5-10. Kids can experience guided meditation exercises from their mobile devices. Children check in about how they are feeling using emojis and then engage in recommended mindful missions for those feelings (ie. Focusing, energizing, calming, etc.). Stickers reward children’s progress. The app is free but if you wish to uncover all of the available missions, there is a yearly subscription of $4.92 per month or monthly subscription of $9.99 per month.
For Teens and Adults:
A simple and intuitive app designed by the National Center for Telehealth & Technology to teach breathing techniques to manage stress. It provides information about stress as well as exercises to help users learn stress management through diaphragmatic breathing. You can customize the inhale and exhale instructions and keep track of moods. The skills taught may be applied to those with anxiety disorders, stress, and PTSD.
A self-guided app that aims to increase positive emotions through exercises and games supported by positive psychology and mindfulness research. An initial questionnaire is used to suggest “tracks” for an individual’s use, and subsequent activity content is geared towards various aims. This app has a lot of content and activities. It is free but in order to be able to use all of the features, you can upgrade and pay a yearly subscription of $4.99 per month, 6 month subscription for $49.99, or monthly subscription for $11.99 per month.
The iCBT app provides a platform to identify, appraise and reappraise negative thoughts, based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Users are prompted to identify negative thoughts, rate their negative feelings, identify cognitive distortions, and reframe negative thoughts. It is recommended for use in conjunction with therapy so it can be used as a thought record to be further discussed and reviewed with a therapist.
iCounselor Anxiety $0.99:
Developed by Dustin Swede and social worker Barbara Lester, this app promotes cognitive behavioral therapy, with users rating their level of anxiety. The user then follows instructions for a calming activity and finding a way to change his or her thoughts. Also available for anger, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders. This seems more appropriate for adults as the user simply reads about the various recommended strategies rather than engaging in interactive and visual activities through the actual app.
Targeted to help adolescents, teens, and young adults gain insight into and basic skills to manage their symptoms of anxiety disorders. The app provides education, useful quotes, CBT strategies for reframing thoughts, and various chill out tools such as breathing exercises, mental imagery, and mindfulness. The skills taught may be applied to individuals with physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral manifestations of anxiety, providing users with more helpful, balanced ways of thinking about feared situations.
Self Help Anxiety management (SAM) (free):
This app was developed as a method to help people cope with anxiety and can be used by teens and adults. It provides 25 options including education about anxiety, anxious thoughts, physical relaxation, mental relaxation, and health and anxiety. Users can track their anxiety and build their own anxiety toolkit. There is also an option to access a “social cloud” where users can chat with other users. However, some reviewers have suggested that there is no monitoring of this cloud so caution should be taken when suggesting its use to teens.