What do you do when you can’t afford therapy but are struggling to handle your mental illness alone? You could download an app. In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of mental health apps available to smartphone users. These reasonably-priced, or most often free, mental health apps offer a wealth of resources that make therapeutic techniques more accessible, portable, and cost-effective.
Within minutes, you can find and download a myriad of apps that incorporate proven techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), and address everything from depression to eating disorder recovery, anxiety, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more.
While the vast majority of these apps do not have peer-reviewed research to support their claims1, health experts predict they will play an important role in the future of mental health care by providing innovative solutions for the self-management of mental health disorders. Some researchers are working on guidelines for mental health apps2 and in the meantime, the American Psychiatric Association has developed an app rating system to help psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, and other mental health clinicians assess the efficacy and risks of mobile and online apps.3
To be clear, the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t explicitly rate mobile health apps for their members. Their app evaluation model gives practitioners a way to make informed decisions when considering whether an app works for them and their patients. The system provides feedback about the app in the areas of safety/privacy; scientific evidence supporting efficacy; easy of use and interoperability (the app’s ability to enable downloading/sharing of the data for further interpretation).
If you’re a clinician, see also PsycomPRO’s article, Top Mental Health Apps: How to Use Apps as Treatment Adjuncts. (PsycomPRO is our new sister site with content for the professional audience and includes expert insight, practice trends, and practical strategies for assessing and treating patients.)
Will Mental Health Apps Be the End of Therapy?
Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW believes mental health apps have the potential to reach people who would otherwise not receive help by removing the barriers to treatment. “Sadly, only a small percentage of people actively seek professional help for their mental health problems,” he says. “This could be for any number of reasons: they may not be physically able to leave their homes due to severe anxiety or lack of mobility, or they may not have the financial means.”
Another part of the appeal of smartphone-based apps is their anonymity. “The apps also allow for privacy and confidentiality and can be a safe space for individuals who may be too ashamed to admit their mental health issues in person or who may feel that they will be negatively labeled or stigmatized by others,” Dr. Raichback explains. “The privacy of using an app gives some individuals the feeling of separation they need while still being able to find answers to their questions within the comfort of their own homes.”
So, what kind of mental health app could be of real value to people struggling with mental health challenges? According to Dr. Raichbach, “the ideal app will also have mental health practitioners onboard, ready to answer questions, plus a 24/7 support hotline for more severe cases.”
But other mental health professionals question the effectiveness of mental health apps when used in isolation. Tanisha Ranger, PsyD, a psychologist who has used a variety of mental health apps with her patients, finds they’re an excellent way to help people stay connected outside of sessions to the work they are doing in therapy, but is critical of their use as an alternative or replacement for traditional treatment.
“I see mental health apps being very useful for people who cannot get to sessions as often as they would like, but I do not view them as a substitute for therapy,” she says. “If a person is actually in need of therapy, these can be a great supplement, but they cannot take the place of engaging with someone who can offer individualized interpretations and insights that an app cannot provide.”
Jean Otto, PhD, a psychologist in California, agrees. “I don’t think the apps can replace traditional therapy, even in the future,” she says. “The work that is done in therapy requires vulnerability and exposure on the part of the patient, in the presence of another person, followed by an empathic connection to promote change and acceptance.”
While ideally these new digital tools would be used as a supplementary treatment to traditional therapy, for those who aren’t able to access the support of a mental health practitioner, mental health apps offer valuable support and guidance.
If you lack the time or resources or just want some additional help in addressing mental health needs, take a look below at our roundup of mental health apps and see if using one can help you feel better. We will continue adding and updating this list so be sure to check back often. (*Note: App selections based on user feedback; not scientific methods.)
Suicide Prevention Apps
Suicide is a leading cause of death among Americans, tragically taking over 45,000 lives per year according to the CDC. While we’re not suggesting an app alone can save lives, they can be a good resource to go along with counseling and mental health lifelines.
Designed to help those stay safe while having thoughts of suicide, MY3 is free and lets you customize your own personal safety plan by noting your warning signs, listing coping strategies, and connecting you to helpful resources to reach out to when you need them most. At your fingertips is a button that puts you in direct contact (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) with a trained counselor from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as well as a 911 alert. Additionally, you can choose three people to contact in the event you’re having thoughts of suicide. (Free; iOS and Android)
notOK is a free app developed by a struggling teenager (and her teen brother) for teenagers. The app features a large, red button that can be activated to let close friends, family and their support network know help is needed. Users can add up to five trusted contacts as part of their support group so when they hit the digital panic button, a message along with their current GPS location is sent to their contacts. The message reads: “Hey, I’m not OK! Please call, text, or come find me.” (Free; iOS and Android)
General Mental Health Apps
With the state of the world set to crazy mode right now, who isn’t having feelings? Whatever your emotion – stress, anger, angst, depression—a little extra help dealing is something we could all use, am I right? These apps are like a little pocket therapy (not to be replaced by actual therapy) that provide approachable, easy-to-use (and sometimes fun) ways to manage every mood, help change unhealthy thought patterns, and give you effective strategies to stay grounded when life feels out of control.
What’s up is an amazing free app that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) methods to help you cope with Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and more. Use the positive and negative habit tracker to maintain your good habits, and break those that are counterproductive. We particularly love the “Get Grounded” page, which contains over 100 different questions to pinpoint what you’re feeling, and the “Thinking Patterns” page, which teaches you how to stop negative internal monologues. Try it out for yourself.
MoodKit uses the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and provides users with over 200 different mood improvement activities. Developed by two clinical psychologists, MoodKit helps you learn how to change how you think, and develop self-awareness and healthy attitudes. The journal feature is a great way to practice self-care by reflecting on the day, noting any distressing thoughts, and documenting how you overcame them.
Addiction is a serious disease that affects too many people—and the facts are staggering: According to the CDC, more than 750,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2018 and an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually. Yet, with the proper counselling and dedicated rehab programs, addiction can be treatable.
While apps are not a replacement for in-person help, they can provide people suffering with recovery resources at the palm of their hands to help track sobriety, monitor triggering behaviours, and give instant access to support. If you are experiencing addiction and need help.
Twenty-Four Hours a Day
Based on the best-selling book of the same name, Twenty-Four Hours a Day offers 366 meditations from the book, making it easier for people in recovery from addiction to focus on sobriety wherever they are.
Quit That! – Habit Tracker
Quit That! is a completely free app that helps users beat their habits or addictions. Whether you’re looking to stop drinking alcohol, quit smoking, or stop taking drugs, it’s the perfect recovery tool to track and monitor your progress. Track as many vices as you want and find out how many minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years it’s been since you quit.
Those with chronic anxiety know the feeling: The angst is always there—lurking around like a stage-five clinger. It’s the kind of condition that, for the 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older who have an anxiety disorder, can be all-consuming when left to its own devices. But anxiety can also be manageable once you learn how to work through all that worry. Seeking help from a mental health professional is the best way to manage anxiety, but, the following apps are great tools to use along the way—like reminding you to focus on your breathing to get out of a vicious thought cycle.
MindShift is one of the best mental health apps designed specifically for teens and young adults with anxiety. Rather than trying to avoid anxious feelings, Mind Shift stresses the importance of changing how you think about anxiety. Think of this app as the cheerleader in your pocket, encouraging you to take charge of your life, ride out intense emotions, and face challenging situations.
Self-Help for Anxiety Management (SAM)
SAM might be perfect for you if you’re interested in self-help, but meditation isn’t your thing. Users are prompted to build their own 24-hour anxiety toolkit that allows you to track anxious thoughts and behaviour over time, and learn 25 different self-help techniques. You can also use SAM’s “Social Cloud” feature to confidentially connect with other users in an online community for additional support.
CBT Thought Record Diary
The centrepiece of cognitive-behavioural therapy is changing your emotions by identifying negative and distorted thinking patterns. You can use CBT Thought Record Diary to document negative emotions, analyze flaws in your thinking, and reevaluate your thoughts. This is a great app for gradually changing your approach to anxiety-inducing situations and your thinking patterns for future situations.
Bipolar Disorder Apps
Just like its name suggests, bipolar disorder is characterised by polar opposite mood swings that go from extreme highs to the lowest of lows. It’s a largely genetic condition that affects up to 5.7 million adults. While bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition that requires medication and psychotherapy, along with those treatments, apps can be a useful tool to help those with the condition understand and track their moods, identify triggers, and get a handle on the severity of their symptoms.
Part personal journal and part mood tracker, IMoodJournal can be used to record everything from mood and symptoms, to sleep, medications, and energy cycles. By tracking these various factors, you’re able to analyze your daily feelings through summary charts that indicate where your stress levels rise and fall.
eMoods is a mood tracking app designed specifically for people with bipolar disorder. Throughout the day, users can track depressive and psychotic symptoms, elevated mood, and irritability and give an indication of the severity of their symptoms. Users can then see their mood changes on a colour-coded monthly calendar and even export a monthly summary report to identify specific triggers and better understand their fluctuating mood.
If you have depression, life can seem like a giant pit of quicksand that’s constantly pulling you under with no way out. Let’s just say, it’s a heavy state of being. And it’s also one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting about 350 million people. If left alone, depression can continue to linger and linger, taking a toll on your quality of life. But there is a bright side: It’s treatable. Seeking help from a mental health professional is the first step. And for those in therapy, there are also some good apps that can do everything from helping to boost your mood to connecting you with a trained professional who can offer virtual counselling.
Talkspace Online Therapy
Can’t afford to visit a therapist but still wish you had one to talk to? Talkspace makes that possible. Starting at $65 per week, you can text message a trained professional as often as you need and receive responses daily. They also offer services for individuals and couples, so if your significant other wants to learn how to support you through your depression, they can download the app too.
Need a happy fix? With its psychologist-approved mood-training program, the Happify app is your fast-track to a good mood. Try various engaging games, activity suggestions, gratitude prompts and more to train your brain as if it were a muscle, to overcome negative thoughts.
MoodTools aims to support people with clinical depression by aiding the path to recovery. Discover helpful videos that can improve your mood and behaviour, log and analyze your thoughts using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles, develop a suicide safety plan and more with this free app.
Eating Disorder Apps
Thinking about food, weight, and body image is a constant battle for the millions of Americans with an eating disorder. In fact, it can consume so much of their waking hours that it often gets in the way of daily functioning. For referrals to treatment options, general concerns, or support, call for professional help. And while you’re recovering, the below apps can help foster a better body image and encourage a healthier relationship with food.
Recovery Record is a great app for anyone recovering from an eating disorder and wanting to develop a more positive body image. Keep a record of the meals you eat and how they make you feel using the app and complete questionnaires that’ll help you track your progress over time. One user calls Recovery Record a “remarkable recovery tool”; “It helps me stick to my meal plan, provides an outlet to vent about my food concerns and helps me stay intact with my body to work with it rather than against.”
Rise Up and Recover
Rise Up + Recover is a unique app as it not only allows you to track your meals and how you feel when you eat them, but you can also transcribe your progress into a PDF printout. Pull up the Rise + Recover app on your mobile when you feel the urge to binge or skip a meal, and need quick coping strategies.
Unlike the other apps featured in this list, Lifesum is a broader resource for all things healthy living. The app allows you to set personal goals, from eating healthier, to building more muscle and getting in more steps each day. You can also enter your own personal data and let Lifesum generate a “Life Score” to get a personalized roadmap to better health. With reminders to drink water and eat regularly throughout the day, Lifesum is a great option for anyone trying to live healthier, but for people with eating disorders, this app can be used to help you redefine how you think about healthy body image.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Apps
Who hasn’t left the house only to turn right back again because you’re worried you left the iron or the stove or the curling iron on? We’re all guilty as charged. But for someone tormented by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that same worry can persist all day—even after they’ve gone home to turn off their appliances. OCD, experienced by 2.2 million adults, is characterized by repetitive, unstoppable, intrusive, or obsessive thoughts and irrational urges (compulsions) to do repetitive acts to relieve the anxiety of the obsessions. The obsessions and compulsions can vary greatly. But, with a first-line treatment plan of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and/ or medication, OCD can be effectively managed. To ease the angst on the regular, the following apps identify triggers, help to navigate about of OCD when it strikes and provide easy ways to turn around negative thoughts.
nOCD was designed with the help of OCD specialists and patients to incorporate two treatments: mindfulness and Exposure Response Prevention Treatment. You can receive immediate, clinically-supported guidance when an OCD episode strikes, take weekly tests to assess the severity of your OCD, and have motivational support along the way. One user calls nOCD “a free therapist in your pocket!”
One of the most frustrating parts of living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can be dealing with intense anxiety despite the fact you know your worries are irrational. Worry Watch aims to help users identify their trigger points for anxiety, note trends in their feelings, reflect on when the outcomes were harmless, and change their thinking patterns for the future. Think of it as your personal, password-protect, worry diary.
GG OCD aims to improve OCD symptoms by increasing the user’s awareness of negative thoughts and training the brain to push those aside to embrace a more positive outset. The app takes the users through various levels, each consisting of short games around a specific theme. From how to automatically replace negative self-talk with positive thoughts, to belief in change, building self-esteem and more, this app takes its user on a journey towards a healthier thinking pattern.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a traumatic event and affects roughly 8 million adults a year. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Left untreated, PTSD can impact daily functioning, which is why getting help from a mental health provider is crucial. Though not a substitute for treatment, the following apps can be useful for those with PTSD to cope with anxiety and anger and find support.
Created by the VA’s National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), PTSD Coach offers everything from a self-assessment for PTSD, to opportunities to find support, positive self-talk, and anger management. What’s great about this app is that you can customize tools based on your own individual needs and preferences, and integrate your own contacts, photos, and music.
Sometimes you just need to breathe and remind yourself you are okay. Breathe2Relax is made for just that. Created by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, this app is a portable stress management tool that teaches users a skill called diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe2Relax works by decreasing the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response, making it a great option for people suffering from PTSD.
Schizophrenia is a complex brain disorder that’s marked by hallucinations, delusions, bizarre thoughts, and perceptual challenges. Symptoms can vary widely, and it can be very difficult for the person who has it to maintain normal functioning. There’s no cure for the disease, and symptoms can come and go—and often require lifelong treatment with medication. To help keep track of symptoms and get a handle on daily life, these apps are great resources.
Schizophrenia patients are prone to social isolation even when their condition is treated. The PRIME app, created by psychiatry professor Danielle Shlosser, connects people with schizophrenia to their peers through a social network style interface. It also lets users track “challenge goals,” things they’d like to accomplish or improve about themselves.
The Schizophrenia HealthStorylines app makes it easier for those with schizophrenia to monitor their condition by keeping track of symptoms, medication, and moods. You can set medication and appointment reminders, record questions for your clinician, take note of symptoms and connect with a support system.
Mindfulness and Meditation Apps
From guided meditations, breathing exercises and videos to stories and soothing music, mindfulness and meditation apps are basically the answer to your angsty prayers. Experts believe regular meditation can actually change aspects of brain functioning. And for long-term changes, studies show that it takes about eight weeks of practice to make a real difference. Whether you have five minutes or an entire afternoon, these apps are guaranteed to create a sense of calm in your anxious brain—and all from the comfort of your couch. Namaste.
The Headspace app makes meditation simple. Learn the skills of mindfulness and meditation by using this app for just a few minutes per day. You gain access to hundreds of meditations on everything from stress and anxiety to sleep and focus. The app also has a handy “get some headspace” reminder to encourage you to keep practising each day.
Named by Apple as the 2017 iPhone App of the Year, Calm is quickly becoming regarded as one of the best mental health apps available. Calm provides people experiencing stress and anxiety with guided meditations, sleep stories, breathing programs, and relaxing music. This app is truly universal; whether you’ve never tried meditation before or regularly practice, you’ll find the perfect program for you.
Ten Percent Happier
Want to sleep better, find relaxation, be more mindful and, well, ten percent happier? This is the app for you. Ten Percent Happier has a library of 500+ guided meditations on topics ranging from anxiety and stress to parenting and sleep, as well as videos, bite-sized stories, and inspiration you can listen to on the go. New content is added weekly so you’ll never tire of having to do the same meditative practice again and again.