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How do mental health apps work?

These apps can help you to manage stress, anxiety and more — but they’re not all made equal.

There are around 275 million smartphone users in the US, so it makes sense that there’s a market — and appetite — for mental health apps (MHAs). While they can’t always substitute face-to-face care, MHAs are a good way to check in with yourself and deal with stressors.

What are mental health apps?

Mental health apps use various behavioral and therapeutic techniques to guide people in managing their emotions and improving their state of mind. Available to smartphone users, they’re positioned as a portable, affordable and accessible way to get help with your mental health.

Since they rely on users accessing information on their phones, MHAs are a form of telehealth.

Types of mental health apps

“Mental health apps” is an umbrella term. While some apps are multifunctional, most give their users the tools to manage a specific aspect of mental health or wellbeing.

They typically fall into one of these categories.

CategoryHow these apps helpMajor apps in this space
Mindfulness, meditation and breathworkThey’re designed to boost your concentration and mental clarity, and help you to feel calmer and less stressed.

They achieve this through:

  • Guided meditations
  • Mindfulness exercises, like intuitive eating
  • Breathwork exercises, such as alternate nostril and deep belly breathing

These apps cater to beginners and advanced users, and include accountability features — like calendars.

  • Headspace
  • Calm
  • Shine
  • Ten Percent Happier
  • iBreathe
  • Insight Timer
  • The Healthy Minds Program
Online therapyMobile therapy apps connect you with a licensed therapist for professional treatment.

They offer various ways to communicate with your therapist, and all communication happens on the app’s encrypted platform.

Depending on the app, you may be able to chat to your therapist via:

  • Text messages
  • Audio and video messages
  • Live video or phone sessions

Most teletherapy apps offer subscription packages to choose from. They typically include unlimited messaging and a set number of live sessions with your therapists — making them a cost-effective way to stay on track with therapy and your progress.

  • BetterHelp
  • Talkspace
  • NOCD
  • Lantern

Some telehealth apps can match you with therapists as well as doctors and specialists:

Finally, there are also apps that connect you to communities of your peers, rather than professionals. These include:

  • Solace
  • HearMe
  • Wisdo
Self-help and therapy skillsSelf-help apps teach you therapeutic techniques and coping skills you can use to manage your feelings and situations.

They typically don’t offer communication with a therapist — instead, they guide you with the help of exercises, games and activities, like journaling.

Some apps support specific conditions, like bipolar disorder. But most aim to help anyone feeling anxious, stressed or uncertain.

  • Happify
  • What’s Up
  • MindShift
  • MoodKit
  • MoodMission
  • MoodTools
  • PTSD Coach
  • DBT Coach
Apps for tracking moods, habits and symptoms These apps offer a way to monitor how you’re feeling on certain days.

They operate on the principle that self-awareness is the first step to healing. They can help you to:

  • Keep tabs on your symptoms
  • Identify triggers and thought patterns that affect your mood
  • Acknowledge and break negative habits.
  • eMoods
  • Moodfit
  • Moodpath
  • CBT Thought Record Diary
  • Worry Watch

Are mental health apps legit?

Many MHAs have been developed with input from mental health professionals and research institutions. But not all apps are peer-reviewed, so it’s worth doing your due diligence before signing up.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has a system for rating MHAs. While it’s geared towards psychologists and psychiatrists, it lays out exactly what to look for in a mental health app — so it’s useful for potential members. It’s based on five pillars, which highlight the importance of apps’ user-friendliness, personalization and scientific research.

The ADAA’s system aside, these are the key questions to ask about mental health apps:

  • Do they use proven methods? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) are examples of evidence-based techniques.
  • Are they private and confidential? Read through the privacy policy to make sure the app complies with HIPAA standards. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act lays out privacy laws and ethics to follow, including patient confidentiality and encrypting all communication and live sessions.
  • Do they require a secure login? Think two-step authentication or a passcode instead of a written password.
  • What credentials do the mental health professionals hold? If the app offers teletherapy, the professionals should be certified counselors, Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), psychologists or psychiatrists. Similarly, guided meditations should be run by trained meditation teachers, and so on.
  • Is the mental health professional I’m matched with licensed in my state? Therapists are only licensed to practice in certain states, so double-check those details in their bio.

What can mental health apps help with?

Each app tackles a different dimension of mental health, so they offer support for certain groups of people.

You can download an app to assist you with common conditions and stressors, like:

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Career changes
  • Depression
  • Divorce and separation
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief and loss
  • Intimacy issues
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Mood issues
  • Negative habits and thought patterns
  • Phobias
  • Panic attacks
  • Postpartum depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Relationship issues
  • Stress
  • Sleep issues and insomnia
  • Substance abuse
  • Trauma

Are mental health apps effective?

Around 90% of mental health app users experience a positive shift in their mental and emotional health, according to a 2017 study from Brigham Young University.

Furthermore, 90% of users said the apps boosted their confidence and motivation — which makes the case for MHAs as an affordable and effective tool.

What aren’t mental health apps suitable for?

While mental health apps can offer a level of emotional support to most people, they’re not the best option for those experiencing mental health emergencies, such as suicidal thoughts and hallucinations. If you’re in that situation, please call 911 immediately.

Some apps — like online therapy apps — aren’t suitable for people who don’t have complete or private access to their phones. They don’t always meet the requirements for court-mandated therapy, either.

How much do mental health apps cost?

Most MHAs are free to download but operate on a subscription model. This means you’ll pay fees based on how you use them — and how often.

For example, subscription therapy apps charge weekly, monthly or annual fees. Let’s look at two of the biggest players: Talkspace fees start at $65 per week, which offers unlimited text, video and audio messages with your therapist. In comparison, BetterHelp’s cheapest package costs $80 per week — but it includes unlimited messaging and weekly live sessions with your therapist.

As for guided meditation apps, most offer a free introductory course and charge for advanced meditations. To give you an idea of costs, a Headspace subscription is priced at $12.99 per month, and Calm will set you back $9.99 per month.

Does insurance cover mental health apps?

Usually not. Some apps partner with health insurance companies, so you may get a discount if you choose to subscribe.

Can I use my FSA/HSA to pay for my mental health app subscription?

It depends on the app, but you’ll likely have to pay for the subscription up front either way.

Generally, if the app accepts insurance, you should be able to submit the bill to your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or Health Savings Account (HSA) administrator.

How to sign up to a mental health app

The registration process varies, but always starts with an app download.

  1. Go to the Apple App Store if you have an iPhone, or Google Play Store if you have an Android device.
  2. Search for the mental health app and choose Install.
  3. Create an account.
  4. Explore the free offerings on the app, and select a subscription if you want access to paid features.

Benefits of mental health apps

MHAs empower people to get the support they need anywhere, and anytime. They’re ideal for monitoring your mental health during tough periods in your life, and dealing with anxiety and stress in the long-term.

These are some of the benefits:

  • Easily accessible. Life can get in the way of scheduling regular check-ins with a mental health professional. MHAs remove those barriers with their portability. As a user, you can get relief and help 24/7 from the palm of your hand — rather than waiting for an appointment to open up. According to MedCity News, they may also make it easier to incorporate mental health help into your lifestyle, at a time and pace that suits you.
  • High engagement rates. Thanks to notifications and interactive features like games, MHAs help people to self-manage a broad range of mental health conditions, according to a Harvard study. Researchers said the “ease of habit” and “low effort expectancy” make apps attractive to users.
  • A cost-effective way to manage your mental health. Most subscription apps cost $10 to $80 a week for unlimited use. To compare, a one-hour session with a therapist costs between $100 and $200, according to PsychCentral. Plus, many apps have free features and financial aid programs for low-income users, and some offer discounts if you don’t have health insurance.
  • Offer a range of ways to communicate with a therapist. You can choose the method you’re most comfortable with, whether it’s texting, voice or video messages or live sessions. This model appeals to people who prefer either written or verbal communication, as well as those who don’t necessarily need real-time help.

Limitations of mental health apps

The research is still evolving, but we do know mental health apps have their limitations. These include:

  • Not always a replacement for in-person professional help. Some mental health conditions require in-person sessions. For example, some phobia treatment requires Virtual Reality (VR), which is difficult to do on an app. And online therapists typically can’t help with mental health crises, such as thoughts of self-harm.
  • Can’t provide a diagnosis in all cases. Some mental health apps can’t diagnose your condition — but they can direct you to seek help or treatment.
  • Not regulated. Apps that provide therapy must follow HIPAA regulations, but the National Institute of Mental Health confirms there are no industry-wide standards for mental health apps. This means there may be apps that are developed without the input of mental health professionals.

How to compare mental health apps

Mental health is incredibly personal, so the right app for you comes down to the help you need as well as your budget.

The best way to compare apps is to download them and play around with the free features. This will give you a feel of how the app works and the value it can provide to you.

To evaluate an app, ask these questions:

  • Does it offer the help I need? From recorded meditations and habit trackers to virtual therapy, each app serves a specific audience.
  • How much does it cost? Crunch the numbers to make sure you can afford the subscriptions. If the price is out of your reach, find out whether the app accepts your insurance or has a financial aid program.
  • How will I interact with the app? Some apps offer direct communication with a therapist or mental health professional, while others encourage you to work through exercises on your own.
  • What’s the user experience like? If you’ve downloaded the app, determine whether it’s engaging and easy to use. Otherwise, check out screenshots on the app store.

Ask an expert: When are mental health apps a suitable supplement for in-person or teletherapy?

Mental health apps, such as TalkSpace and Better Help, are increasingly popular. I think these apps are a great way to increase access to therapy services, and they also help destigmatize seeking mental health help. But I believe there is no real suitable replacement for an in-person therapy session. The relationship between the therapist and client is the most important factor in therapy and a lot of what makes therapy so effective and life-changing is lost when you’re both texting behind screens and can’t read the other person’s facial expression or body language.

Overall, if you are looking for a shorter term therapy relationship or need support around a specific problem or issue, I believe online therapy apps can be very helpful, but if you are seeking a longer term therapy relationship and wish to do deep work, in-person therapy is probably the way to go.

Ask an expert: When are mental health apps a suitable supplement for in-person or teletherapy?

Alisha Sweyd

Alisha Sweyd
Licensed marriage and family therapist at Code 3 Counseling

I think these apps are better for folks who are reluctant to go to sessions, and want to know more about the process or what to expect to feel more comfortable going to in-person sessions. They also work for folks who feel like something is off, and want to do preventative work so they don’t spiral into a darker place. But anyone who is experiencing difficulties with their mental health more than three days per week truly needs to begin with in-person or telehealth services.

What are the benefits and limitations of using a mental health app?
The primary benefit is it is easy and simple to use at any time of the day. However, the folks on these apps usually do not have specialties, and are learning about the process of counseling from a provider perspective as well. (Often, but not always the case.) I had a few colleagues who tried these kinds of jobs to get more income in order to open their own private practice, and they had a hard time with the ethical issues not being addressed as well as the treatment of themselves as employees.

If you want a really good therapist, you need to find someone who loves where they are working, because they will be a better clinician in that environment than in one they are struggling in. Trust me, from experience, I am a much better therapist working in my practice with my first responders than I ever was at any other job I have had.

Alternatives to mental health apps

While MHAs are a convenient way to get care, they’re not for everyone. If you need more help, you’re far from alone.

Explore these affordable alternatives:

  • Sliding scale therapists. Some psychologists, counselors and social workers offer cheaper hourly rates to those who can’t afford their standard fee. They usually advertise this on their bio or website, or you can search for a sliding scale therapist on mental health directories like Psychology Today, and the Open Path Psychotherapy Collective.
  • Community mental health centers. These clinics are staffed by mental health professionals, and offer individual and family therapy and medication management. The services are low-cost or provided for free, particularly if the clinic supervises student psychologists, counselors and social workers. To find a center near you, go to or search the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) database.
  • Enroll in studies for mental health conditions. If you have a specific diagnosis, research any local universities or colleges that are researching that condition. You may be able to access free therapy by enrolling in the study.
  • Sign up to a local support group. These groups connect people sharing a similar experience, like recovering from postpartum depression or coping with grief and loss. You can find specialized groups through your local hospital or Mental Health America.

Bottom line

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and MHAs put help in your pocket. Some apps offer professional therapy, while others guide you through mindfulness, meditation or coping strategies in your own time.

A type of telehealth, MHAs can work as a standalone platform or a way to supplement in-person care. To assess whether an app is right for you, compare its costs and features — and make sure it has a strict privacy policy.

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