Search “anxiety” or “­depression” in the Apple App Store or Google Play store, and dozens of self-help mental-health apps appear. But do they work?

The truth is, few have been rigorously tested—and many encourage expectations that actually may harm mental health. So finds an analysis of the marketing used to promote 61 top-rated mental-health apps available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Results…

  • Many apps invoked vague scientific authority with phrases such as “clinically proven” but didn’t cite any research.
  • Apps often framed mental-health problems as present in everyone and characterized normal, healthy responses to stress as abnormal.
  • Many encouraged frequent and excessive self-monitoring—which can make certain mental-health conditions worse.

To be sure, some apps have been shown to be beneficial. Researchers cite another large-scale study published in World Psychiatry that found that there is evidence that some smartphone apps can help improve moods and reduce depressive symptoms. Examples: The meditation app Headspace ($12.99 per month)…SuperBetter (free), which helps users confront tough challenges and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression…and PTSD Coach (free), an app to help with post-traumatic stress disorder developed by the ­Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. All are available for both iOS and Android.

But even evidence-based apps still may encourage constant checking, which can undermine mental health. It’s fine to use a meditation app such as Headspace on your own, but apps designed to treat depression or anxiety are best used along with a therapist. A self-help app should be just one part of your support system for mental health. ­

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