Which Mental Health Apps Actually Help?

Recently I’ve been struggling with my mental health again. With private counselling and other treatments being unaffordable for many (myself included) I decided to try a few mental health apps to see what they have to offer. I tried a few of the most popular and well known apps, as well as some that are fairly new or not as widely known about. Could these apps make a difference to my overall wellbeing?

Headspace

When opening the app you’re prompted to take a few deep breaths before you’re taken to the home screen. It’s thoughtful, but sometimes I’m in a hurry to quickly log something (although maybe I’ve missed the point of the mindfulness exercise there!). Meditation and mindfulness activities are organised into four categories: Meditate, sleep, move, and focus. Unfortunately a lot of this is locked behind a paywall, and you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription in order to access all of the app features. On your profile you’re encouraged to ‘check in’ once a month, to track your mood and stress levels, which might help you identify triggers over time. You can also choose the length you’d like your mediation to be, which is a small feature I love for the days when you can’t commit to a full 30 minute meditation. The inclusion of haptic assistance and closed captions are great accessibility features that I didn’t spot on any of the other apps (although I could have missed it). I also like the app layout; it’s easy to navigate, and the colours and graphics are soothing without being too overwhelming.

Rating: 3/5

Calm

Setting up an account took a while as it asks a lot of questions in order to create a curated homepage for you, although you can skip them if you want to get started right away. However I wouldn’t recommend this as I found the questions a helpful place to begin reflection, asking about what triggers your anxiety, how it manifests itself, and your experience with meditation. You can set up daily alerts for sleep, mood, gratitude, and reflection that all provide great prompts and insights into your habits and mood, which is then saved to your profile and used to to create recommendations for you. For premium features, I found this app to be the best value for money. There are so many meditations, soundscapes, and sleep stories to choose from, sometimes the choice was a little overwhelming. I enjoyed short daily 12 minute meditations the most. The soundscapes were okay, but better used as background noise when I wanted to focus, rather than a meditative tool. The background graphics are customisable and calming, but homepage is cluttered with choices and feels similar to a Youtube or Spotify homepage, which is where the app falls short for me. I didn’t like the profile aspect, as sharing stats and streaks takes away from the mindfulness experience by turning it into a social media game.

Rating: 4/5

Zeal

Begins by setting up a mood tracker, encouraging user to update it several times a day to help spot patterns of behaviour. Set times for mood tracking, journaling, and gratitude. Learning tab with helpful articles. User friendly interface with soft colours and prompts without being too invasive. Booking a chat: app will ask you if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, suffering panic attacks or none of the above. It then asks if you’ve had suicidal thoughts or experienced any violence or abuse recently. After answering a couple of questions you get to choose at least 3 slots for a 30 minute chat. Even though the response isn’t instant, it felt reassuring to know I would have someone to talk to soon. I booked a chat and had a phone call from a volunteer, who I was surprised to discover was a qualified practising therapist. She was happy to answer the questions I had about the service, and explained that anyone could volunteer to be a listener if they had the right skills and qualities. She chose to volunteer for Zeal to help people struggling during the pandemic that weren’t physically or financially able to access private counselling. She explained that the ‘screening questions’ a user answers before booking a slot are to highlight potential serious issues such as someone being at risk of self harm, and if a user was seen as high risk they would be referred to the Samaritans. Users can also request particular listeners if they are comfortable with a specific person, and I liked this feature as it gives the user a bit of stability when they need it most, talking to a familiar person instead of a new stranger is helpful when you’re struggling. Overall, for a new app I’m very impressed with what it offers and I’m excited to see how the service will expand in the future.

Rating: 4/5

Pocketcoach

Like the others, Pocketcoach begins by asking questions to set up an account. The questions cannot be skipped as your answers help the app find the right course for you. I have an iPhone so iOS apps are pretty standardised, but I had an issue with this app where the text didn’t fit to the screen and was cut off, meaning I couldn’t read some of the questions or instructions properly. You’re encouraged to complete a profile but I couldn’t get the sign up form to work so I skipped it. The chat function is cute, you choose from a few pre-written responses and get some words of encouragement from…the sheep? I understand why the replies have to be selected like an RPG, but because I couldn’t write specifically how I was feeling, I didn’t feel heard and the advice seemed shallow. Thankfully there is an opportunity to rate the chat afterwards and select from a few choices how it could be improved; I selected information/content. While this fell flat for me, I think the ‘sheep mascot’ idea fared better in the course feature. The social anxiety course was insightful, helped me feel less ashamed about my anxieties and taught me a few coping mechanisms. The Exercises tab is extensive and helpfully organised into categories such as Dealing with Thoughts, Calming Down, and Mindfulness. Unfortunately, most of these courses are locked behind a paywall.

Rating: 3/5

Worry Tree

The premise of Worry Tree is simple: you write down all of your worries. You can sort them into categories, such as money, family, work etc. but you can also create your own categories. After you write down the worry, the app asks you if you can do something about it. If you select ‘Yes’, it prompts you to write down an action plan, it then asks you when you’re going to action it and if you choose ‘Now’, you get the joy of ticking a box and the app gives you a well done for resolving your worry. I liked this feeling of personal responsibility and accomplishment, as well as having some kind of control over my irrational fears. You can track your ongoing unresolved worries and uncertainties – 2 separate categories – at any time. I like that you can set a date on uncertainties to revisit them and see if the worst actually did happen. There’s an option to set PIN for extra privacy, which is a great idea if you lend your phone to family or have nosy friends. There’s also a section to write down daily gratitude and a section of journaling prompts and reflection exercises called ‘Challenge Thoughts’. It’s the most visually bare of all the apps, but a welcome rest for my senses as the bells and whistles of some of these apps can be a bit too full on at times.

Rating: 5/5

Do you know of any more apps I should try? Let me know!

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