How to Find the Best Therapy App for You, According to Experts
The virtual therapy market makes it convenient to see a therapist from your own home. Here's how to find the best therapy app for you.
The popularity of therapy apps
It seems like you can do pretty much anything with an app these days, and that includes getting support for your mental health.
“The mental health app industry has exploded,” says Mona Potter, MD, head of the child and adolescent outpatient program and anxiety mastery program at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. “If I just go and look in my own phone, there are a ton of different options available.”
Therapy apps are a growing trend and the Covid-19 pandemic has only solidified the need and desire for online counseling. According to a report by Grandview Research, the global mental health app market was valued at $40.05 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow 18 percent a year for the next seven years.
There are many benefits to mental health support apps. They give people information about mental health services and provide support when it might be hard to get an appointment with a therapist or if the patient feels a stigma towards therapy and therefore is avoiding in-person visits, says Dr. Potter.
But not all apps are created equal. “Even for us clinicians, it’s hard to figure out how to file through the apps to figure out which ones are legitimate and worth giving a try versus which ones are flawed or maybe not worth looking into,” she says.
There are some things to consider when choosing the best therapy app for you.
The purpose of therapy apps
It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of therapy and mental health apps but the first thing to consider is what you are hoping to achieve from using the app, says Dr. Potter.
“For example, maybe you’re someone who’s feeling some level of depression. You’re thinking ‘I’m not quite ready to go talk to somebody about this, but it might be helpful to see if this app can help me understand what depression is or have some tools I might use,” she says.
Other reasons people turn to therapy apps including wanting help with sleep, anxiety, relaxation, or productivity.
Types of therapy apps
There are a number of different types of therapy apps for different purposes.
Monitoring or tracking therapy apps
These apps help you monitor your mental health symptoms. You can use these on your own, but often they are used in conjunction with a therapist—and are likely more effective this way, says Dr. Potter.
For example, people who are undergoing a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) may be asked to keep a diary of symptoms through an app, to share with a therapist. Or it could be monitoring food intake for someone with an eating disorder.
Therapy apps that teach a skill
Many therapy apps teach mental health-related skills like mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation. Similarly, many apps help track or improve sleep.
These apps can be used independently or if your regular live therapist wants you to work on this skill. “We used to create our own scripts for people to take home or we’d record them on their phone. Now they have a lot of options to go to,” says Dr. Potter.
Full treatment therapy apps
Some apps offer full therapy treatment, whether that’s working with a virtual therapist or coach, or by following a pre-set program—for example, a CBT regime for anxiety where you might watch videos, write in a journal, and learn mindfulness techniques to manage your anxiety.
Look for privacy and confidentiality
Another super important thing to consider when choosing the best therapy app for you is the privacy and confidentiality of your information. “You want to make sure it’s not stealing your data, that it’s secure and you’re not giving up your mental health info,” says John Torous, MD, director of the digital psychiatry division in the department of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Dr. Potter relates this back to the real world of therapy. “In our clinical world, we are so big about privacy and confidentiality. In the app world, there is a whole lot less regulation around that,” she says.
The MIND website, which stands for M-Health Index and Navigation Database, and is based on the APA’s app evaluation framework, can help wade through apps to see which have good privacy policies, among other criteria.
Consider whether the app is evidence-based
You also want to consider whether there have been any studies that show the app’s effectiveness, notes Dr. Torous, who heads up the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) mental health app evaluation working group. “So, is the app actually going to help you?”
In the description of the app, the company will often mention if they have done studies on their programs. Again, the MIND website can help you wade through the various criteria.
Engagement and cost
“While it’s easy enough to download and get started with an app, sticking to it is a whole other story. Even with the most engaging apps, it’s hard to stick with them without some sort of human support,” says Dr. Torous, who notes that even if the app doesn’t have a live therapist to work with, you could buddy up with a friend of family member to keep you on track.
Also, consider the cost of the app. Some apps are completely free, while others are free to download but then you have to make in-app purchases.
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Best therapy apps to consider
According to the APA, there are upwards of 20,000 mental health apps available. The best therapy app for you will depend on the criteria mentioned above, but here are a few to consider.
U.S. Veterans Suite of Apps
This suite of mobile apps from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is relevant for everyone, not just veterans, says Dr. Torous, who adds that they are completely free with good privacy policies.
These apps “coach” users by providing information and tools to manage things like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and insomnia. With Covid Coach, for example, you can track mood changes over time, access tools for self-care, set personal goals, and track your progress towards them.
Some apps in the collection are designed to be used in conjunction with visits with a live therapist, while others can be used independently (but are not meant to replace therapy).
(These are the signs your therapy is working.)
The BetterHelp app matches you with one of more than 10,000 counselors with whom you interact by text messaging in private “rooms.” The rooms are open 24/7 so you can go in and write what’s on your mind at any time, and receive a notification once your counselor has responded. You also have the option to talk on the phone or video chat with your counselor.
A 2019 study published in JMIR Mhealth and Uhealth found those who used the app showed a reduction in the severity of depression symptoms three months after enrollment. It’s important to note that one of the study authors is a community and support manager for the app company.
Torous notes as well that there isn’t enough evidence so far to say that text-based therapy, in general, is a suitable replacement for live therapy. The cost to access a counselor through BetterHelp is $60 to $90/week.
Having trouble sleeping? This app could help. Somryst is a CBT-based app authorized by the Food and Drug Administration that targets insomnia by training your brain to make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. You’ll develop a more efficient “sleep window,” learn strategies to break your brain’s association between being in bed and being awake, find out how to change your thoughts that are contributing to poor sleep and make lifestyle changes to improve your sleep.
Somryst is a self-paced program designed to be executed over six to nine weeks. A nine-week treatment program is $899 and requires a doctor’s prescription.
One of the most well-known therapy apps, TalkSpace, matches you with a therapist. You can send text messages, audio, picture, and video messages at any time of the day or week. Your therapist will respond daily, five days a week. You also have the option to have live video sessions with your therapist.
The cost for this kind of access to your therapist starts at $99/week for you and your partner. This includes weekly live sessions and on-going messaging support.
Intellicare is a free suite of apps developed by Northwestern University’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. Users start with the Hub app, which then recommends other apps, including Daily Feats, Thought Challenger, My Mantra, Day to Day, and Worry Knot.
In Daily Feats, you’ll set goals for actions you want to take to help you stay engaged and positive in your life—like giving a compliment to someone or thinking about something you’re grateful for—and then track your progress.
Thought Challenger helps you recognize and reframe unhelpful thoughts while Worry Knot teaches you how to decrease your emotional response to worry.
According to Intellicare, its apps have been shown in clinical trials to be effective in helping those suffering from mild to severe anxiety and depression.
(Here are some therapist tips for how to deal with depression during Covid.)
Bloom claims its self-guided therapy app will help you manage stress and anxiety, improve your sleep, help you build better habits, and foster stronger relationships—all without interacting with a real person.
Instead, the CBT-based program combines daily interactive videos, journaling, (journal entries are encrypted for privacy), and mindfulness exercises to improve mental health.
There are a range of price options, starting at $10.49/month, and it’s currently available for your iPhone or iPad.
Keep in mind
Therapy apps can be helpful depending on what your needs are, and how willing you are to stick with the program or sessions. However, there is no “one-size fits all” solution. “It’s very rare in medicine that we say, ‘this is the best.’ I can’t even say that for anti-depressants, never mind therapy apps,” says Dr. Torous.
Next, here are the signs you may need therapy.
- John Torous, MD, director of the digital psychiatry division in the department of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and head of the American Psychiatric Association's mental health app evaluation working group
- Mona Potter, MD, head of the child and adolescent outpatient program and anxiety mastery program at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Grandview Research: "mHealth Apps Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Type (Fitness, Medical), By Region (North America, APAC, Europe, MEA, Latin America), And Segment Forecasts, 2021 - 2028"