Therapist Tries 6 Mental Health Apps

There are these apps that kind of advertise as therapy apps, but are careful to say that they’re not a substitute for therapy. They use meditation (like Headspace, which I’m not reviewing here), or guided journaling, or talking to a robot about your thoughts and feelings and having that robot track your emotions and help you analyze them. These are some of the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or “CBT” works using the idea that by shifting our thoughts when there is an unpleasant stimulus, we can mitigate negative feelings. CBT uses tools to help you have a different relationship with your thoughts. I downloaded several of these apps, used them a little, and wanted to give a bit of a user’s experience review-lite.

So, in alphabetical order, here the apps I tried!

Bloom is a very beautifully made app. It’s no wonder you can use it for a lifetime for $399.99 ($59.99/year or $14.99/month) (as of December 2020). Every day, it asks you a scale of how you’re doing (from "really terrible" to "super awesome"). It asks you to choose an emotion you’re feeling related to that answer and then it asks you to go deeper into that emotion and really get an accurate label. So, say you’re angry and also frustrated. It asks you to name what is making you feel that emotion and the things you’re struggling with in that category (so, if your hobbies are making you frustrated, maybe you are also dealing with low motivation in that arena). And that’s it for the daily check in! Then, a real person comes on (in video form) and gives you psychoeducation about mindfulness which is pretty cool. There are exercises and programs to help with personal growth, stress reduction, mood boosting, motivation, and more. It’s pretty comprehensive. An instrumental plays in the background of the app the whole time, which is wild.

Daylio is primarily an app for for emotional identification, journaling and goal setting. Again, there’s a scaling question first— how are you doing? from "rad" to "awful"— and it asks about activities today that could be related to that feeling. That’s it, you’ve logged your day’s progress. It allows you to set goals for yourself; like exercise during the week, which is something that can be tracked as well. For $2.99/month or $23.99/year, you get more moods to choose from with more icons for those moods or activities, more statistics from your moods, goal tracking and additional spots for goals.

Jour advertises as a journaling app. When you go to complete your daily journal activity, it asks you how you’re feeling on a scale of "bad" to "great" and then prompts you to specify using an emotion word, and asks what could be making you feel that way (it provides you categories: home, work, relationships, etc…) This is similar to all of the other apps, thus far. It asks you to describe: what about that category you chose is making you feel the emotion you selected and it gives you prompts to begin your sentence (which is helpful). It then asks what you’re going to do that day (maybe this is because I have been using these in the morning) and lets you select another item that will make you feel good (usually something to do with mindfulness or gratitude). Following, it gives you stories and exercises based on the prompts you chose. It’s quite tailored and comprehensive, like Bloom, but without the music in the background. Much of the features need to be unlocked with a subscription, however. After a free trial (which most of these apps provide), it’s $59.99/year or $5/month.

Mindshift is specifically for anxiety. The app asks you to rate your anxiety on a scale of 0-10 and to describe what is happening in your life at the present moment. Then, it asks you to add physical symptoms of anxiety you may be feeling (these are listed for you to choose). Mindshift provides education in the form of signs, tips and general knowledge around specific types of anxiety, including but not limited to, social anxiety, phobias, and perfectionism. The app-based tools for different forms of anxiety include thought journals, coping cards and “belief experiments” which help you question your anxious thoughts. You can also create measurable goals for yourself inside the app. As far as I can see, Mindshift does not have a subscription fee. However, it looks like you can make a donation to this solid app. Thanks for making this service so accessible, Canda!

Woebot is a pretty funny name. It primarily acts as a chat app. The “bot” on the other end asks you questions prompting you to name your thoughts, feelings and situations in which those thoughts and feelings occur. In many of these apps, you're given choices to answer its questions or statements (i.e., it tells you a strategy for helping yourself and it allows you to choose “gotchya” or “I don’t get it” as a reply). It sent me a gif of Minions rejoicing when I completed something. That was fun. Woebot helps you challenge negativity and stress. The more you use it, the more tools and knowledge you unlock. It just sent me a GIF of a baby porcupine after saying a corny joke which prompted the app to have me send it a *facepalm*. So silly. There is a gratitude journal and mood tracking as well (all of these apps come with mood tracking as this is the data you enter when you open them). Woebot appears to do fairly traditional CBT work with a sense of humor and without buzzes and whistles. Woebot also appears to be free right now.

I’m not going to pretend like I wasn’t already using and liking Youper. It’s still my favorite. It’s still free*—as of this moment and it feels very comprehensive— so I don’t know how long that’ll last. Like Woebot, it’s a chat bot that talks to you. When I found it a couple years ago, the app primarily had you identify your emotions and thoughts and helped you identify cognitive distortions or “thinking traps” to attempt to bust a hole in your thought process. This is all jargon that any of these apps can define for you, although “thinking traps” is a great quick definition. I’ll give you an example of one of them: Mind Reading is when you assume that you know what other people are thinking about you or your actions. Not like magic, like “they think I’m not doing enough” type of thinking. And it would be magic for you to know other people are thinking those types of things.

Aside from naming your feelings, Youper has added prompts to allow you to meditate, help you fall asleep, set goals, and practice gratitude. It has sounds and programs for meditation. Like all of the apps, it tracks the moods that you input and keeps track of the triggers that you’ve previously noted so that you can go back and remind yourself of the things that have previously elicited joy or sadness. Youper has something else which is a little divisive. It comes with real clinical scales. The same scale that I was administering to clients to determine the severity of their depressive symptoms is on the app for you to use and track yourself. There’s scales for anxiety, depression, trauma, panic and social anxiety on Youper. We (much of us in this culture) tend to be quick to self-diagnose and having these scales so accessible may exacerbate that tendency. However, if it’s clear that these are not diagnoses, but tools to track ones’ progress while being used in conjunction with therapy, then more power to it! We’re disenfranchised enough and mental health needs to be accessible in order to continue the process of destigmatization.

The thing I ran into most often that bummed me out was the amount of locked features that necessitated paying for a subscription. I get that these apps are products. As a therapist, I want to provide clients with supplemental activities that can be helpful in between session and I don’t love the idea of asking them to pay for something else. That being said, my favorite of these apps are still free, or have solid free features (Minus the cost of a phone or a tablet of course).

All of these apps, or more formally, applications, provide mood tracking— identifying your feelings, thoughts, behaviors and situations-- that happen during the day. Having a visual representation of your self somehow makes your self less daunting. You have some kind of control in understanding that you are just riding the waves. However, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times, these apps are not a substitute for therapy. They are an addition to it!

You don’t usually have access to your therapist 7 days/week, but you usually have access to your phone. Need to check in on an unsavory recurring thought on Saturday night at 1AM? Try one of these apps. During your session on Tuesday at noon, you can really dig into it.

Go ahead and send me a message if you’re interested.

*There is an upgraded version of Youper that is $3.75/month or $44.99/year which provides you advanced bot conversations, more prompts for journaling and additional guided mindfulness exercises.

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