Can a Smartphone App Really Help Improve Our Mental Health?

Mar 20, 2019
By: Marissa Camilli

Positive mental health is something we should all be talking about. With this in mind, there is quite a conversation to be had about the role of the smartphone in connection to our well being. Despite being a technology that has the power to bring us all together, the smartphone, along with many of its applications (especially in the field of social media), is often highlighted as something that can have a detrimental impact on our mental health.

Is this assumption fair? Well, there are, of course, two sides to this story.

Finding Balance

The fact is, we all love our smartphones and our apps. For most of us, this is a fairly healthy relationship. They keep us entertained, help us manage our social lives, and make us more productive. It’s all about balance. If we can recognize that a little bit of what we fancy does us good – but too much of a good thing is sometimes a bad thing, we should all be in a good place.

But what happens when that balance gets a little off-kilter?

You’ll know you have a problem when you are no longer entertained, anxious about social engagement and downright unproductive but still unable to put your smartphone down. The smartphone is so ingrained in our lives, that the thought of going “cold turkey” might just trigger an episode of Nomophobia – the fear of being without our smartphones.

It might be easy to dismiss conditions such as nomophobia or smartphone addiction as “first world problems” suffered “entitled” millennials – but the correlation between smartphone addiction and serious mental illnesses including anxiety and depression is very real. This can have an adverse effect on the person’s thoughts, behavior, tendencies, feelings, and sense of well-being.

Good Health – There’s an App for That

It might sound counterintuitive, but the answer to your smartphone-based anxieties might actually be found on your smartphone. There is an app for everything these days, so there might as well be an app to help you manage your mental health.

Good mental health (just like good physical health) can start with a few good decisions regarding everyday lifestyle choices.

Popular diet and exercise apps which can easily be found in the Google Play Store can help you plan, track and optimize healthy living strategies are a great risk-free place to start making improvements to your everyday well-being. 

However, for more acute mental health issues, it’s always best to take a piece of more qualified advice. 

Qualified Advice

Speaking to The Guardian, André Tomlin, who runs Mental Elf, a website dedicated to publishing reliable mental health research and guidance, suggests that the mental health app marketplace is “very messy.”

“If you go to the App Store and browse in the health and wellbeing section, what you’ll get is a ton of yoga and sex apps,” says Tomlin.

The fact is, as good as the various app marketplaces are at recommending apps based on criteria such as popularity, similarity to previously downloaded apps, and paid promotion, most mental health apps are not ranked on sound clinical advice.

It’s also worth remembering, in a largely unregulated arena with access to huge audiences, you will find many unscrupulous “experts” hawking products with little (or no) value. This is annoying at the best of times – but when it comes to mental health, it can be downright dangerous.

A Healthy Place to Start

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) recently launched a library of smartphone apps which evaluates clinical effectiveness based on expert and patients’ opinion before recommending specific downloads. The NHS Apps Library features a range of apps to help manage many health-related issues – including Cancer, Dementia, Diabetes, and Mental Health.

Featured apps include a range of free and paid for apps, as well as apps that are supported by in-app purchases and some that are only available by referral from health professionals (these won’t be available in the Google Play Store).

Positive Social Engagement

Another organization that is seeing positive results from app-based technologies is the mental health charity Mind.

Mindful of the influence that social media has on our mental health, Mind has developed their own social media app called Elefriends.

The basic premise of Elefriends, which actually started life as a Facebook group, is to get people talking. But this isn’t a place for the standard social media #Humblebrag. Thanks to the app’s closed environment, there is no social pressure to portray a positive image (the norm on services like Facebook or Instagram and which can make people who are perhaps not “living the dream” feel inadequate). This open dialog helps users understand that they are not alone and encourages them to communicate with the group (which includes input from moderators who are on hand to help guide the conversation or offer support).

The proof of the value in services like Elefriends is in the testimonials of its users.

Speaking to journalists, one community member said: “Elefriends has been a constant source of support for me. I have gone from not speaking to anyone, to speaking out to everyone.”

There is no doubt, as well as helping people live better lives, apps like Elefriends are actively helping save lives.

The Smartphone’s Role in Mental Health

While it might be very easy to point the finger of blame at technologies like the smartphone for contributing to mental health crisis around the world, it is apparent that the technology also provides an incredible opportunity to reach people who may previously have no access to mental healthcare services.

Apps can help people create their own coping strategies, build supportive communities and provide urgent assistance in times of crisis. This is incredibly positive news.

The smartphone isn’t going away anytime soon. The smartphone is still a relatively new technology and, as such, we are all still learning how to live with it. As we move into 2019 and beyond, we believe that mental health services are going to be an increasingly important application on many smart devices. It may change the way we think of our smartphones and ourselves.

Marissa Camilli
By Marissa Camilli
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