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Everything will be all right: Apps and services for improving mental health

Laura Blackwell | Aug. 30, 2013
Is your online life getting you down? Cheer up—there's a friendlier Web out there.

There's an app (or 400) for that!
Searching your app store of choice will turn up plenty of behavioral and mental health apps, with little aside from marketing copy and user reviews to distinguish them from one another. Rutledge advises, "Do some research. Don't just read the name of the site...Google reviews, Google the company, learn more about the psychology. It's really important to know it's got a psychologist involved somewhere."

Many apps are free to try, she says, so "check one out and see if it works for the way you work. The best app in the world won't work if you can't use it."

"They [apps] can be very effective and very useful, but they're not necessarily for everybody," agrees Ritterband. However, the most crucial thing may not be the personal fit, but whether the theory is sound. "Apps have become a phenomenon over the last several years. There are hundreds of hypnosis apps with no data behind them," says Ritterband. "Make sure that there's science behind what you're using."

The science of self-tracking
Many well-known behavioral and mental health apps, such as eMoods and T2 Mood Tracker, let people track their emotional states. "Mood trackers stem from the idea of behavioral monitoring being useful," says Ritterband. But it might not be enough for every situation: "Just providing feedback on its own may not effect a change. There is some data to support that basic behavioral monitoring can be useful. It's useful with sleep; often people find they're sleeping better than they think."

One of the most venerable is Optimism (iOS, Mac, Windows, Web browser; free). Developer James Bishop explains that when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he "put...efforts into finding out what would work. I started recording aspects of my health in an Excel spreadsheet: sleep, medication, food, and so on."

Bishop attended a six-week course at Australia's Black Dog Institute, which researches, diagnoses, and treats mood disorders. There he learned about stay-well strategies—positive actions and habits for improving mood and function. "That helped me to turn my focus on positive things I could do, and not just symptoms and medicines." The spreadsheet kept him on top of both his triggers and his stay-well strategies.

In 2008, Bishop released Mac and PC editions of Optimism with triggers, trackers, and stay-well strategies. He made the program customizable as well. "The Optimism app was very focused on the individual, something to contribute to their own health. There's no magic in the application."

There may not be magic, but there is science. Rutledge notes that Optimism "lets you not only become more sensitive to moods and triggers, which is important, but also able to look back and see your successes. It helps you to create new behaviors."


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