“There’s an app for that.” It seems there is an app for just about anything these days. And, as you listen to your favorite podcast or favorite song on Spotify, you might hear ads for apps to help you manage your mental health. They promise you can “get help on your own time, at your own pace and at an affordable rate.” You may even hear lines like, “Licensed counselors who specialize in issues including depression, stress, and self esteem...” But how can you tell the difference betwen apps that are helpful or ones that take advantage of people who are looking for and need support?

Half of Americans Will Seek Help for Mental Health at Some Point

There is certainly a need for the many apps that offer help with mental health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children diagnosed with anxiety or depression rose from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2012. Half of all Americans will, at some point in their life, be diagnosed with a form of mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to eating disorders or schizophrenia. But treatment for mental illness is not always cheap. According to GoodTherapy, an appointment with a therapist can range anywhere from $65 per hour to $250 or even more. Apps might offer a cheaper, more convenient alternatives, but they are also largely unregulated.

Thousand of Apps Focus on Mental Health

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston published a study in the journal Nature describing an online assessment tool that can help people evaluate mental health apps before they spend their money. “The need for accessible mental healthcare is more urgent than ever,” the study authors wrote. “In 2016, mental health conditions impacted more than a billion people worldwide and depression in 2020 is recognized by the World Health Organization as a leading global cause of disability.” The paper cites research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Psychiatry, which reports there are 350,000 health apps available, and 10,000 focus on mental health.”

With 10,000 apps and more appearing every day, how can a person pick the right one? Using guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association, the researchers created their tool to help users filter available apps to find one that fits their needs, or they can use questions to pinpoint an app that might work best for them.

This is not a ranking app and there will be no overall “best” mental health app. “We do not score questions or produce summary scores, but instead let the end user judge what is important and a good match for them,” said the authors. “Ultimately, we designed the model to be self-sustaining and fully functional for use by a single clinician or patient.” In other words, what one patient finds important in an app might not work for someone else.

Questions include basic things like what platform the user has, as well as price and data privacy. Further questions narrow down the apps by asking what type of app the user is searching for, like mediation, mindfulness or journaling. The tool then generates a list and the user can see the apps’ ratings and features.

“Ultimately, the database provides a public and interactive approach to data collection to create transparency, generate discussion, and provide individuals and their clinicians with the information to make the best choice for clinically meaningful app use,” said the authors.