Private therapy helps so many people stay mentally healthy, but it also can come with long wait times, high costs and sometimes awkward moments. So it’s no wonder that many people turn to mental health apps for help with their own mental health concerns. Popular apps can include mood tracking, meditation, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and other tools to use to stay mentally healthy.
“People find that they can increase insight, improve habit forming behaviors and build mindful awareness [using apps],” Lauren Cook, MMFT and Doctoral Candidate of Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University, tells SheKnows. “Furthermore, they can be discreet. It might look like you’re texting when in actuality you may be utilizing a mental health app.”
But with all the advantages, mental health apps aren’t exactly perfect. There can be some drawback to using them — especially if you’re using them incorrectly. Here are five things mental health experts want you to know before you hit download.
1. Apps Aren’t a Substitute for In-Person Therapy
Mental health apps are best used in conjunction with in-person therapy. Jessica A. Rose, LMHC, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist, says mental health apps are most useful for individuals who are currently working with a mental health professional and are looking for an organized way to their track symptoms or experiences, or to practice the interventions they’ve learned in therapy in their daily life — interventions such as meditation and breathing techniques.
“The best thing about mental health apps is that they extend the learning from the therapy session,” says Cook. “They bring the skills into a day-to-day practice and build greater awareness.” They also help you form healthier habits. For example, you may begin a more consistent mindfulness practice when you get a daily reminder from your phone app.
2. Avoid the Ones That Try to Make You “Your Own Expert”
Rose has only criticism for any mental health apps that promise to make you your own expert.
“Imagine the same statement was put forward regarding legal advice, dental health, acupuncturist? Mental Health Professionals (LMHC, LCSW, Ph.D., PsyD, MD) have, at minimum, six years of college education, plus externships/residencies, supervised clinical hours, and must pass a state licensure exam,” says Rose. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an app that is able to encapsulate all the education acquired both in and out of the classroom to assert that one who downloads this app may become their own ‘expert.’”
3. Don’t Self-Diagnose
“Mental health apps should not be diagnosing anyone and it is concerning that someone would use an app after they have self-diagnosed themselves,” says Cook. Ideally, she says, use of an app is monitored by your clinician so that any questions or significant changes in behavior can be monitored. “Mental health apps also don’t assess for safety in the same way that an in-person therapist can. For example, if someone is feeling suicidal, an app can only do so much to get you to the appropriate care whereas a therapist can guide you through the process of getting support.”
4. Check With Your Doctor or Therapist First
In the same vein, of course you want to select apps that will do you good, and your doctor or mental health provider can likely give you a personalized recommendation. But if that’s not possible, “read reviews about the apps and Google what apps may be the most helpful for treating the symptoms that you believe you are experiencing,” recommends Cook.
5. Your IRL Support System Outweighs the Help of an App
If you’re experiencing mental distress, Cook suggests connecting with your personal support network first before you go to an app. “Having conversations with family and friends about your distress can be a meaningful way to process your experience,” she says. “That face-to-face opportunity for support can make a tremendous difference — even if it’s through FaceTime. Human connection makes a big difference.”
If it’s a small amount of stress, that in-person support may be all you need to help you cope. But if you’re having difficulty completing your daily obligations and/or are overwhelmingly upset, Cook recommends that you seek professional care before turning to an app.
Ultimately, when it comes to treating your mental health effectively, the experts we talked to believe that seeking treatment from an in-person therapist should always take priority over seeking help from a mental health app.
“Mental health apps are great for those who are looking for self-improvement and increased awareness,” Cook says. But for people who have difficulty controlling their emotional responses and/or are emotionally in distress or for those who lack motivation, “a mental health app is likely insufficient treatment.”
Instead, Rose urges people to think of mental health the same way you think of physical health: If you have a worrisome symptom, it’s best to first get checked out by a professional.