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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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How it feels to come out of depression

Coming out of a depressed episode feels amazing and exhilarating. Think about when you have a bad cold or even strep throat. You felt lousy for such a long time and all of a sudden when your infection clears it’s like you’re a totally different human being. You got used to feeling sick and that became the new “normal.” It was exhausting and possibly debilitating but you adjusted and took care of yourself and your symptoms.

This is what chronic depression feels like. You are not well but you still have to go on living anyway. Sometimes people get to the point where they are so unwell that they do not want to live anymore and become suicidal. That is a very scary dark place to be. Depression is a serious health issue and it can literally kill people. It’s not just a mental health issue but a medical condition that needs to be treated. This is what depression feels like. You are not well but you still have to go on living anyway. Sometimes people get to the point where they are so unwell that they do not want to live anymore and become suicidal. That is a very scary dark place to be. Depression literally can kill people and it is a serious health issue. Not just a mental health issue but a medical condition that needs to be treated. People that do not understand what depression is or how severe it can get often underplay the effect it can have on people’s lives. I’ve heard people call someone who is depressed “unmotivated” or “lazy.”  They tell the same person to “get over it.“  Depression is something that you can’t miraculously get over and forget about. It is a lingering persistent feeling that can drag you down. A good friend of mine said that depression feels like you’re walking around with weights on your body; this is an accurate description of what it feels like to be depressed.

If you feel like you’re walking around with weights on your body when those weights are lifted you feel incredible, invisible even. That’s what it’s like when you’re coming out of a depressed episode. The feeling is invigorating and your body and mind feel unbelievably well. Having that emotional weight lifted from you is a glorious feeling.
The tricky thing is that this feeling may be temporary. The relief you feel after being depressed isn’t “forever.” Especially if you have chronic depression, you can expect that another depressive episode will return. This temporary relief can feel deceiving to people who suffer from depression. They might believe that they are free from it. It might even result in a person getting off of medication when they don’t need to do that. If someone who has chronic depression stops taking medication for depression, it’s highly likely that they will have another depressive episode.
So, enjoy the relief you’re feeling when you come out of the depressive episode but remember if you have chronic depression it is likely you will get depressed again so do not be deceived by bouncing back.