Feeling Depressed or Anxious? These Apps Can Help!


Mental Health Apps Pros and Cons


Who are you likely to turn to when experiencing a change in mental health?

Many youth and young adults prefer seeking online, anonymous help rather than talking with their parents, peers or a professional, according to Ashley Radomski, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Alberta’s Department of Pediatrics.


Many youth and young adults seek anonymous help online.


And though there are many mobile applications for mental health (mHealth apps) youth and young adults can turn to when their mental health is affecting their physical health, relationships, and academic and work performance, there are pros and cons to keep in mind when using them, she said.

Radomski has provided much-needed advice for choosing mHealth apps, based on her research into how technology-based interventions for depression and anxiety, such as apps and online programs, work in youth and young adults.

The research was conducted under the supervision of Amanda Newton, pediatrics associate professor at the University of Alberta and co-developer of Breathe—a pan-Canadian online, self-led anxiety intervention for teens.


Mental Health App Pros


Many mHealth apps are free, and can be accessed from anywhere.


“The good news is that mHealth apps have the potential to overcome barriers associated with traditional in-person mental health care, such as geographic location, financial costs and clinician waitlists,” said Radomski.

Many apps can be downloaded free of charge and can be accessed anytime and anywhere users choose.

“Use of mHealth apps can also increase youth’s independence, control, self-awareness and self-confidence in managing their own mental health,” she added.

A growing body of research indicates apps may be a promising option for mental health care by offering tools through the convenience of personal, handheld devices.


Look for tools like assessments, tracking and resources.


Useful online tools can include:

  • mental health assessment – checklists of physical signs of anxiety
  • Education –  health management strategies and contact information for local health services
  • Social Support – discussion forums and chats
  • Tracking – mood diaries, for example
  • Symptom Relief  – teaching of therapeutic techniques


Mental Health App Cons


Mental health apps aren’t scientifically regulated.


Radomski strongly discourages relying solely on mHealth apps for help.

“Less than half of all youth and young adults who experience a drastic change in their mental health contact a health-care provider,” she said, adding that mHealth apps are not necessarily designed to be used as a replacement for in-person mental health service, but rather in conjunction with them.


Apps can be a helpful adjunct to in-person care.


Another con is that, although there is research suggesting some well-designed mHealth apps are effective and helpful for anxiety and depression, “most apps on the market have not been scientifically evaluated since technology development moves faster than research,” she explained.

“Youth, young adults and health-care providers should be discerning when selecting and using apps for self-management of their health.”


How to Choose a Mental Health App


Look for proven techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.


Based on Radomski’s research and other published peer-reviewed research, here are some general principles to consider when selecting mHealth apps suitable for youth and young adults.



“Look for content that incorporates evidence-based strategies and high-quality information,” said Radomski.


Look for proven strategies, such as CBT.


For example, cognitive behavioral therapy strategies such as reframing negative thoughts, and real-time support such as a mental health expert who can answer questions, may be more effective at improving the mental health of users, she noted.



“A useful mHealth app will encourage self-monitoring of thoughts, behaviors, feelings and tracking of symptoms,” said Radomski.

These features are critical in managing your mental well-being, she added.



Look for indications of empirical support, such as references to research or well-studied treatment approaches, and check that the developers have expertise in mental health or have third-party endorsements or professional affiliations with reputable universities or organizations, said Radomski.


Privacy and Security


Look for an assurance of privacy and data security.


“Always check acceptable terms of use, information sharing with third parties and data security measures to ensure your personal information is private.”




You’ll want to consider whether there are download fees or ads, and whether there is unrestricted access to app features, she noted.



“Don’t make assumptions about functionality,” said Radomski. Check to see whether the mHealth app offers integration with smartphones and has reliable performance.

To ensure you’ll keep using it, select an app with a pleasing look and feel that is easy to use, has some level of interactivity and personalization, includes relatable topics and examples, and allows for one- or two-way communication for technical, therapeutic or peer support.


Plan For The Long Term



“Most apps are not designed to be a ‘quick fix,’ but will provide strategies to support longer-lasting changes in health attitudes or behaviors,” explained Radomski.


“Remember, the benefits of mHealth apps typically come with repeated use.”



Recommended Mental Health Apps

“A high app rating provided by the app store does not necessarily mean the app is of high quality,” said Radomski.

These three apps are backed by evidence or include evidence-based techniques and are freely available in app stores:


For Kids and Teens



Always There: Developed by Kids Help Phone, it provides local mental health resources and confidential and anonymous online chat support from a counsellor.


For Teens and Young Adults

MindShift: Developed by AnxietyBC and BC Children’s Hospital, it teaches relaxation, coping skills and strategy planning for anxiety.


For Young Adults and Adults



SAM (Self-Help Anxiety Management): Developed by researchers at the University of West England, it helps users monitor and manage panic attacks and anxiety with multimedia activities and mini-games. It also includes peer social support.


For Immediate Help




If you are in crisis, and need immediate support or intervention, call, or go the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.



Crisis Services Canada

1-833-456-4566, or text 45645

Kids Help Phone


If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.


Finding a Health Care Provider



For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA also has a Behavioral Health Treatment Locator on its website that can be searched by location.

You are not alone: there are services in your area.

National agencies and advocacy and professional organizations have information on finding a mental health professional and sometimes practitioner locators on their websites.

Examples include but are not limited to:

University or medical school-affiliated programs may offer treatment options. Search on the website of local university health centers for their psychiatry or psychology departments.

You can also go to the website of your state or county government and search for the health services department.



Contact your general practitioner, and ask for a referral to a qualified mental health care professional.


Provincial Mental Health Helplines

Each province in Canada has its own comprehensive site where you can do online assessments to get more information about how you’re feeling.

You can also find easy to access information and quick facts on PTSD, depression, anxiety and many other disorders on each site, plus a directory for mental health services across your province.

You’ll even find options to call, chat online or email a mental health professional — whatever you’re most comfortable with.


Final Thoughts

Mobile mental health apps can be a helpful as a resource for depression and anxiety, and particularly as an adjunct to professional therapy.

Choose  your app with care, using the guidelines above, and be patient; working through mental health issues usually requires time and repetition.

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