Apps to Mind Your Mental Health

Samantha Costa

Technology as hope

The National Alliance on Mental Illness -- or NAMI -- reports that approximately 1 in 5 American adults is affected by mental illness in a given year. What's more, the Pew Research Center reported that as of October 2014, 64 percent of American adults owned a smartphone. With the proliferation of apps for everything from paying your rent to tracking your fitness, it's no surprise more adults are turning to technology for help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and more. Here are tips for navigating some of the many mental health support apps available:

Benefits and limitations

The American Psychological Association doesn't have any official recommendations for using apps or texting systems for mental health care, says Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at APA. Consider confidentiality if you're sharing personal health information. Apps also shouldn't replace face time with a provider, Wright says, but they offer some benefit. "They can reach people in a lot of different areas. Not everybody has access to mental health professional. It can help people in rural areas," she says. Talk to your health care provider before incorporating a mental health app into your daily routine.

NAMI AIR

The country's largest grassroots mental health organization has developed a free app called NAMI AIR (Anonymous Inspiring Relatable), designed for either people living with a mental illness or their family members and caregivers. Dawn Brown, manager of the NAMI information helpline, says the peer-support app allows users to share everyday experiences and give or receive virtual hugs. "People are finding it very useful as an uninhibited, stigma-free way to relate their experiences as well as learn from others," Brown says. It's available on Google Play and the Apple Store.

Talkspace

This app allows users to receive advice and guidance from licensed therapists on mobile devices 24/7. All messages are private and anonymous. For other apps like this, Wright warns consumers to pay attention to credentials. "Licensure helps you understand if they have the appropriate training to provide services, and there's a level of protection if something goes wrong in the therapy," she explains. Look for the following letters behind a therapist's name: Ph.D., Psy.D., M.S., RMHCI, LICSW, LMHC, LPCI or LPC. The cost of Talkspace ranges from $49 for one week of unlimited use to $12 per week for one year.

Stop, Breathe & Think

Stop, Breathe & Think allows users to select their feelings through an interactive platform that chooses meditation or mindfulness techniques, such as breathing exercises and guided imagery, to encourage relaxation. Mindfulness is a well-established tool that teaches patients to concentrate on the present moment, while accepting their feelings. In a January 2014 analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that mindfulness programs reduced anxiety, depression and pain-induced stress across 47 clinical studies involving 3,515 people; most mindfulness programs occurred over eight weeks. The app is free.

Happify

The Happify app provides users with activities and games designed to build on what its developers call the five stages of happiness: savor, thank, aspire, give and empathize. It starts with a questionnaire to determine your personal goals, followed by a customized daily schedule of games and activities to meet them. The company claims the exercises will help promote positive thinking patterns and inspiration to cope with stress, ultimately leading to increased happiness. A free version permits a few games per day, but the plus plan offers options ranging from $4.95 to $14.95.

PTSD Coach

PTSD Coach was developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in partnership with the Department of Defense's National Center for Telehealth and Technology, and aims to help users manage symptoms that occur after a trauma. The VA estimates that at least 7 out of every 100 people will have post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives. The app offers information on PTSD treatments, a symptom tracker, tools to use during stressful situations and links for support and help. PTSD Coach is free on the Apple Store and Google Play.

Coming soon: RELAX

Sherry Pagoto, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, is developing RELAX, an app that targets stress eating. "When you are experiencing elevated stress, it will allow you to engage in stress-reduction strategies like mindfulness," Pagoto says. The app is part of a three-year project to study stress eating. Once available, patients will be able to track their daily activities using a smartphone, and their clinician will have access to a Web-based companion tool to make informed treatment decisions based on the person's stress and eating patterns.


Samantha Costa is a Health + Wellness reporter at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at scosta@usnews.com.