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Are There Apps that Help Your Mental Health

Are There Apps that Help Your Mental Health

This post is sponsored by SheMedia and Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. I have been compensated for my time, but the experiences and opinions expressed here are my own.

Credit: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

Though we’ve come a long way with mental health, there’s still stigma out there regarding mental illness. That’s why I think it’s crucial to keep talking about the topic of mental health issues. Over the years, I’ve been candid about living with mental illness. I’ve discussed what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, and depression. I was so excited when I had the chance to attend the BlogHer Health panel entitled “Navigating the Vast World of Mental Health Apps,” which discussed the increasing mental health concerns around the U.S., and how many people are turning to innovative digital tools and resources. I know there are some apps connected to virtual therapy companies and others that teach coping skills like mindfulness, but I was eager to learn more about apps that go beyond the traditional approaches that people may think of for mental health through the BlogHer Health event

There are an astounding number of mental health apps 

As of 2022, it is estimated that there are over 10,000 mental health apps available, including wellness apps and digital therapeutics. I was astounded to hear that number and it also made me feel gratified that people are taking mental health seriously. 

I’m relieved to know that we’re finally looking at mental health as a part of our overall health and my kids get to live in a world where we view health in a more holistic way.

Mental health and physical well-being are connected. I believe that it is important to take care of our mental health, otherwise it may seriously impact our bodies – not just our minds.  

During the BlogHer Health panel, Dr. Sherry Pagoto, Dr. Stephen Schueller, and Jessica DaMassa had a candid conversation about the categories of apps available that may support people in managing their mental health. It can be overwhelming to find the right app to help your anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. You may be wondering: what are the different sorts of apps out there to support your mental health?

 Digital Therapeutics vs Wellness Apps

There are different types of mental health apps, but the focus of the panel was on wellness apps, digital therapeutics (DTx) and a subset of DTx called prescription digital therapeutics (PDTs). 

DTx are unique from other apps as they prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease, often under a clinician’s direction. DTx also deliver software-generated therapeutic interventions directly to users, and must meet certain core principles regarding user privacy, security, and clinical evidence. There is also a subset of digital therapeutics called prescription digital therapeutics. PDTs are designed to clinically treat a medical condition and are like medications in that they must be prescribed by doctors, undergo studies for efficacy and safety in clinical trials, and require FDA-clearance. 

Then there are wellness apps. Wellness apps aren’t necessarily clinically validated. Instead, they are intended to promote healthy behaviors and wellness through things like teaching meditation skills, helping patients stick to healthy habits, and providing general information and tips. They are not treatments for mental health conditions. 

Upon reflection, I realized I hadn’t thought of the differences between the types of mental health apps. I’ve written three mental health workbooks about depression, OCD, and general cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with clinical psychologists. Those books have therapeutic tools that support people on their mental health journey. Initially, when I thought of mental health apps, I grouped them in the same category of supplemental materials to use with therapy. I didn’t know that there were apps that could be prescribed by a doctor. I think that’s amazing!

What’s helpful about digital tools?

I believe therapy is a wonderful place to talk about your problems and I see the value in working with a therapist myself, but I have found that it can be intimidating to start seeing a mental health provider. It’s not easy opening up to a complete stranger. It takes time to build a trusting relationship with a therapist. I have invested in that connection and found it helped me.

However, some people may feel more comfortable exploring the use of a mental health apps. “What I like about apps is that it’s a way to get your toes wet with mental health,” said Dr. Sherry Pagoto. 

I can see that perspective. I have friends who struggle with various mental health issues and are terrified to see a therapist. However, I can understand how downloading an app for depression (for example) may be less intimidating than talking with a therapist. 

“Therapy isn’t for everyone. Digital tools may be a more effective way to reach some people,” says Dr. Stephen Schueller. I know some loved ones that (despite my encouragement) won’t see a therapist, but I think they might be inclined to at least try a wellness app. 

One potential advantage to using mental health apps is that they can support people when they’re not in a therapist’s office. Dr. Sherry Pagoto explains these apps can “fill in the gaps in care.” That means that they can be a helpful resource in addition to traditional therapeutic approaches. 

How do you know which apps to choose?

Once you’ve decided you want to try a mental health app, how do you know which one to choose? “Ask your therapist for a recommendation,” says Dr. Sherry Pagoto. Maybe you want some tools to deal with anxiety. You might find a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy app helpful in teaching you coping skills. Perhaps you struggle with depression and want to use a mood tracking app. If you’re unsure of what type of app you want to try, it’s a good idea to consult a mental health professional.  

“One hundred percent of people should prioritize mental health,” says Dr. Stephen Schueller. “We all go through struggles. We all go through stress. Mental health apps might be a way to have an on-ramp to understand a little bit about what some of these skills, some of these strategies, some of these benefits might be in ways that might help different people in their lives.” 

I think Dr. Schueller makes an excellent point. We all have life challenges, and these mental health apps can help provide support. 

Are there times I should always see a therapist? 

Dr. Sherry Pagoto stated that when a person feels like their handle on day-to-day life and problems seem unmanageable, it’s time to seek help from a therapist. 

“Even if you’re just having thoughts like ‘no one would care if I wasn’t here’ that’s a red flag. That’s a sign that you’re not okay. If people around you say, ‘I don’t think you’re okay,’ these are sure signs that a person needs to see a therapist,” Dr. Pagoto says. 

Final thoughts

I think mental health apps can be hugely helpful to people. Key questions that consumers can ask themselves when navigating various mental health apps are:

  • Are there data or studies showing this app is effective at what it claims to do?
  • Who is the app developer and what experience do they have in mental health?
  • How will my data be protected? Will it be shared with third parties?
  • What do trusted sources (like clinicians, regulators, or independent rating groups) say about this product?

Apps may be a tremendously supportive tool if you use them in tandem with therapy or medication. And if you’re worried about seeing a therapist and want to start with a mental health app, it may be a great way to begin taking care of yourself and facing your issues little by little. 

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What DOESN’T make me anxious?

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately. I know, SURPRISE! Seriously, anxiety causes me the most distress out of all the shit I deal with in terms of mental health “issues.” I wake up, I’m anxious about getting my kids ready for school, I’m anxious about getting their lunches ready, I feel nervous about being on time to school and the list goes on and on. Are there people who feel this way? I want to meet them! Who wakes up and is like “this is what I do in the morning and I don’t feel the intense weight or pressure to get all these things done?” That person is my hero, seriously. They are a magical being who I admire and want to emulate.

It doesn’t stop once I get the kids to school. That would be too convenient right? Then I’m thinking: I have to get all this writing done, I need to look for a full-time job and walk the dog. Yeah, the dog causes me so much anxiety. I’m lucky in a way that I’m single. Because I know people who fight about this shit in couples therapy appointments. I don’t have that problem though. Yay me!

But, I do have chronic anxiety, so that isn’t fun. Anxiety is like someone tapping you over and over again. You tell that person to stop and they don’t give a shit. They just keep tapping you repeatedly even though you’ve made it abundantly clear that you don’t want to be touched. Anxiety is that person. It’s not a fun companion to hang with because it wants all the attention all the time. If you don’t pay attention to anxiety it acts like a petulant child. It throws a tantrum and gets louder and louder.

Oh, and anxiety doesn’t give a fuck about how annoying it is. It’s actually pretty confident in its ability to capture your attention. Anxiety is an attention whore. Every time it pokes its head out, whatever method it uses, it is relentless. You have to hand it to anxiety, it gets super creative in the way that it tries to get your attention. Whether it makes you sweat, causes you racing thoughts, tells you that you can’t do things because they are “too much” to deal with or it tries to convince you that “everybody hates you,” anxiety has a Ph.D. in making you feel inadequate. It has studied long and hard at the University of I Want to Make You Question Everything About Yourself.

So what’s the answer to dealing with anxiety? The answer is: sometimes I know and sometimes I have no idea. When I get it right, it’s great. I am able to acknowledge the anxious thoughts and keep doing what I’m doing. When I get it wrong I put my head in my hands and cry out of frustration. I just used the words right and wrong, but there isn’t a right or wrong way to deal with anxiety; it’s what makes you feel better.

What about you? Is your anxiety a pain in the ass? How does it impact you?