By Lauren Basra 

The new year has ushered in a sense of renewal and change, with the common mantra of “New year, new me” ringing in our ears. Taking a new approach to your mental health is an active part of making positive changes in your life. 

As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, having a therapist in the palm of my hand seems like a perfect solution to keep my mood and outlook positive in the face of darker days and rainy skies. However, are the algorithms and data collection absorbing apps a viable substitute for in-person therapy? 

What Are Mental Health Apps?

The saturation of mental health apps available is a testament to their demand and popularity, especially when addressing the treatment gap in access and price of conventional therapy. Apps like Headspace help treat anxiety and utilise mindfulness to aid the user in achieving calmness and offer tools to practise mindfulness when not using the app. 

Apps such as Calm Harm aid those dealing with the urge to self-harm. These are some NHS-recommended apps that have been prescribed to me personally. Be aware, though, a multitude of off-brand or sham apps also proliferates the market. However, some of them can still be incredibly helpful. 

What Are The Benefits Of A Mental Health App?

Still sceptical of the benefit of a mental health app? Here are a few of the proclaimed positives that these apps claim:

  • Immediate treatment: Conventional therapy can involve waiting to find a therapist who works for you. It can take a leap of courage to meet with another person to address your problems. For those still wary of acknowledging they need psychiatric help, a gentle introduction to mental health care is possible with various apps. 
  • Recommendation by Doctors: My doctor encouraged me to explore the wealth of mental health apps available in conjunction with my medication regimen and conventional therapy. This is the ideal scenario where the ease of app usage is combined with more intense and in-depth treatment. 
  • Busy schedules or lack of local treatment centres: Apps are accessible from anywhere on your smartphone, allowing you to access help when needed. Even those with jobs not adhering to conventional working hours can still access the support required despite the work demands. 
  • The sheer number of apps available: This means that there is likely an app that meets your needs giving you a specific place to feel heard. Many of these apps use AI, so there is no need to feel pressured into sharing with a stranger or long waits for someone to get back to you. This can also help when you suffer from anxiety or if there are some cultural prejudices about seeking therapy. 

The Reality: A Lack Of Evidence

A recent article published by the Harvard Medical school details the lack of evidence supporting the benefits of mental health apps. It looks at several studies already undertaken to try and understand this relatively new market. 

The article concludes that the so-called mental health apps are effective only if the user believes they are. There is a lack of practical evidence demonstrating that the apps are beneficial, and the Harvard article stresses that the severity of a mental health condition also affects the app’s efficacy. 

If you struggle with severe depression, an app you have the prerogative to use or avoid using can lead to a complete lack of treatment. Part of depression can be a withdrawal from everything, even oneself. So, only having access to an app that doesn’t have the motivation to check on you (unlike the actions of a therapist) means that you could enter crisis mode and have no one but an automated algorithm on the other side of a phone screen. However, if you can access in-person help and a community (which can be a primary aid in combating the isolation that mental health sufferers often face), you should. This is something that even the app industry encourages. 

What Does This Mean? 

Mental health apps offer no definitive proof of their benefits for users diagnosed with mental health conditions. I believe proper medical help and regular conventional therapy with a human being is much more beneficial than relying on the automated and hands-off attitude provided by these apps. In an ideal world, you could supplement conventional therapy with app usage. Thankfully, this is becoming the recommended practice.

Whether they are effective or not, using an app is taking that first step to tackling any mental health issues you may face. You need to realise that investing in yourself this new year MUST be a priority even if you don’t have a diagnosis. These apps are a way for most people to start their mental health journey and move forward to more lasting and effective help in the form of conventional therapy. 

Good luck out there; remember, seeking help is not shameful; it shows strength and courage. You matter.