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Psychologist or an app? Strategies to improve your mental health

If you find yourself feeling overly anxious or depressed, you’re certainly not alone. More than three million Australians are living with anxiety or depression, according to beyondblue.

However knowing you’re not the only one doesn’t necessarily make it any easier when you’re in the grip of your own spiralling or panicky thoughts.

How do you cope if you’re feeling particularly down, or just struggling to handle the pressure of uni?

Would you feel comfortable booking an appointment with a psychologist or counsellor? Or would you prefer to use a more anonymous mobile app?

It can be tricky to know which form of therapy might be more effective, and even which apps are legit.

The rapid growth of mental health apps

From mood monitoring to mindfulness, some mental health apps have proven incredibly popular. Australian app Smiling Mind, for instance, has been downloaded more than 2.6 million times.

‘The evidence base behind these apps is developing all the time,’ says Dr Jade Sheen, Associate Professor in clinical psychology at Deakin. ‘There is emerging evidence that these applications can be just as effective (as face-to-face therapy).’

An article published by peer-reviewed journal mHealth this year analysed the performance of a range of apps for depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

It found apps that used cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness training and mood monitoring to treat depressive symptoms helped significantly reduce depressive symptoms, yielding the greatest benefits for people with mild to moderate depression.

Its findings also suggested those using anxiety-focused mobile apps became less anxious, but this was most effective when paired with face-to-face or internet-based therapies.

The article noted that while mental health apps have the potential to deliver significant benefits, particularly given a global shortage of psychiatrists and a lack of mental health care in rural areas, there are still challenges. These included poor regulation of apps’ quality and privacy, and the fact that users must be intrinsically motivated to use them regularly.

Be careful what you sign up for

Dr Sheen says anyone considering downloading an app should check who it’s written by, and read the fine print in the user agreement.

‘Some of the ones that are free collect all that data and share it with third parties, so people need to be mindful of that,’ she says. ‘Outside of that I think you also have to think about who’s developing it.’

She says any app developed or recommended by reputable institutions such as beyondblue, headspace, ReachOut or the Black Dog Institute will likely be evidence-based and developed by experts.

Some examples include Snapshot, which allows users to confidentially measure, monitor and manage factors that may influence depression and anxiety. Then there’s The Check-in, which helps people who want to check if a friend is OK, but are worried about saying the wrong thing.

Australian universities have also begun designing their own mental health apps, including moodgym, MoodPrism and Deakin’s own BlueWatch.

Psychologists vs apps

Dr Sheen says when it comes to seeking help (or even preventing mental health problems arising in the first place), it’s not necessarily about deciding between face-to-help therapy or an app.

‘You might start with an application and work your way up to a therapist,’ she says.

‘I think it can also be a really useful adjunct to therapy as well. Just because you’re seeing a therapist doesn’t mean it has to be one or the other.’

In her own work as a clinical psychologist, Dr Sheen says she used to give patients a printout of tasks to complete between sessions. ‘Now when I can, it is encouraging them to engage with a safe application that’s well tested.’

The advantages of mental health apps

One major advantage of apps is that they can bring therapy into people’s lives between sessions, Dr Sheen says.

If you have an eating disorder, an app focused on that might include a ‘push notification’ that encourages you to log what you eat at certain times of the day. Or a gambling prevention app might ask you to identify your current urge to gamble.

Dr Sheen has seen concrete results: ‘I’ve certainly seen an improvement in terms of compliance with homework tasks.’

'I think it can also be a really useful adjunct to therapy as well. Just because you’re seeing a therapist doesn’t mean it has to be one or the other.'

Dr Jade Sheen,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

But human connection is important too…

While she clearly recognises that mental health apps bring benefits, Dr Sheen says there’s no understating the importance of seeking face-to-face treatment, particularly if people don’t feel motivated to use an app regularly.

‘When people do have an appointment time planned there’s an element of social engagement and obligation,’ Dr Sheen says.

Then of course there’s the human connection.

‘When we look at things that work in therapy, a really large part of what works is that therapeutic relationship,’ she says. ‘It’s about support, it’s about having someone bear witness to your concerns, somebody that hears about them and thinks through those issues with you.’

Are you interested in learning about mental health issues on a societal level? Read more about careers in psychological science.


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Dr Jade Sheen
Dr Jade Sheen

Associate Professor, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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