Mental health apps can only complement psychotherapy but cannot completely replace it, believe experts.
Mental health, often considered a taboo and brushed aside for a very long time, got its due (and rightly so) with the onset of the global pandemic. With more people struggling to embrace the new normal in their daily lives, today we find tons of mental health apps in the market to address a variety of problems, disorders, goals, and more. These apps use mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to boost wellness and are developed to focus solely on your inner peace and wellbeing.
While this market continues to boom globally as well as in India, the question that comes to mind is: Can mental health problems be treated with apps alone? Considering how delicate and complex psychiatric and psychological disorders are, it is of utmost importance to carefully weigh the pros and cons of such apps that deal with this very sensitive issue.
Apps versus conventional psychotherapy
While mental health was a topic of discussion at many conferences and meeting rooms prior to the pandemic, it was largely kept under wraps. The year 2020 was a turning point when mental health emerged and became a genuine cause of concern for many . WHO approximated nearly 1 billion people around the globe to be suffering from some psychological condition. However, with the reducing stigma, there are many more options available to deal with these problems. One of them, they suggest, is the mental health apps that are much more private than visiting a therapist. Apps are also much more accessible for the majority of the population, who may find it hard to pay the medical expenses. For some, mental health problems may make it challenging to step out of the house and communicate. In that sense, smartphone apps feel much more like a haven.
But the biggest question that plagues most experts is the effectiveness of these apps. In addition, many apps seem to be endorsed by certain companies, raising just how safe they are for users.
Are mental health apps genuinely effective?
There are, unfortunately, very few studies that check the effectiveness of mental health apps. According to a work of the NCBI, the apps that exist are usually endorsed by an expert or institution. Therefore, to learn more about this connection, an institution carried out a study in July 2020 to monitor patients using five different mental health apps. These included Destressify, MoodMission, Smiling Mind, MindShift, and SuperBetter. However, the results have not been published by the authors, namely, doctors Jamie M Marshall, Debra A Dunstan, and Warren Bartik.
Salt Rainbach, the Doctor of Psychology and Bachelor of Clinical Social Work, said in an article, one key factor that makes an ideal mental health app – the availability of psychiatry and psychology practitioners. The result of most mental health work depends mainly on professional accompaniment. Therefore, according to Rainbach, it is essential to understand the scope of these applications before putting them out into the market.
Dr. Tanisha Ranger, Ph.D. in Psychology, has experience working on such mobile applications. She believes that it complements the therapeutic work and allows her to connect better with her patients. However, she also agrees that one cannot use the apps to replace conventional treatments.
Nonetheless, there are quite a few mental health apps out in the market that are popular among regular users. Many believe that these apps are quite a useful addition to their conventional psychotherapy appointments.
Here are some apps rated high among users:
This app was started by Pankaj Chaddha, co-founder of Zomato, and Pooja Khanna, ex-Zomato chief of staff. The app offers expert guidance for yoga and meditation in addition to content such as music, podcasts, sleep stories and more. Wellness experts are also available in real-time on the app. You can either subscribe for these services at Rs. 399 monthly, or Rs. 699 yearly.
Wysa comes well-equipped with an AI-based chat bot that can expertly answer most of your mental health-related questions. There are two options available to the users – self-care and therapist. The self-care is free of cost and provides you with tools to tackle emotional issues such as anxiety, depression and many more. You can also opt for body scan meditation, compassion meditation and pacing techniques. If you are looking for more expert help, you can book a session worth Rs. 749 with a real therapist.
This app opts for the more traditional Vedic method for mental health and well-being. The app offers hundreds of mantras, chants, hymns narrated by Sanskrit scholars and is perfect for meditation. Thought collections are also available for users to peruse. You can also check out your meditation progress and set challenges to improve yourself. The app is available for purchase at $399.99 for a lifetime subscription.
Headspace is a well-designed app that comes with a myriad of features. At the beginner level, users can opt for short courses to fight against cravings, distractions, lack of concentration and many more. For more intense emotional issues, one can check out the SOS section. Guided videos help users make the most of simple workouts, cardio and mental fitness exercises. The app is free, but some premium features are available with a subscription of Rs. 120 per month or Rs. 890 per year.
The app is described by its creators as an ‘online listening therapy app’. To book a session, you have to click on the ‘Let’s talk’ option. To improve the quality and results of your session, you are required to first answer a few basic questions. Experts are available on the app for an array of subjects, from issues relating to teenage, sexuality, career, academics and many more. There is also an interesting and popular feature available on the app called Listeners, where trained specialists are present to listen to you. One downside to the app is its exclusive availability on Android, with some paid features like video chatting.
Are such mobile apps genuinely worth the hassle?
As is applicable in all spheres of health, visiting a specialist is essential to ensure the best results. However, mental health apps may be beneficial in certain situations. For instance, those who cannot afford expensive psychotherapies, or do not know how to approach a psychotherapist for treatment, can try out these apps as a beginning step. These apps can also be an excellent way to deepen the bond patients form with their therapists.
However, there is nothing better than visiting a well-versed specialist in the subject and being capable of providing the necessary medical treatment. According to Dr. Jean Otto of California, the doctor strongly believes that mental health apps cannot replace conventional medicine since the subject is vulnerable and sensitive. Apps cannot allow doctors and patients to empathise and promote changes in the mind.
Most believe that mental health apps can only complement psychotherapy but cannot completely replace it. A click of an icon on your smartphone cannot solve problems such as anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and others with the click of an icon on your smartphone. While they may enhance the medical treatment for patients, they alone can never be equally effective.