One of the great attractions of inquiring into the human mind is the challenge presented by such a complicated and impenetrable structure. That challenge is also what makes comparing apps designed for mental health so difficult. The variety and rate of new mental health apps appearing has always outpaced the ability of the industry to provide a coherent marketplace for consumers. There are either 700 or 10,000 apps, depending on who is counting, that are difficult to distinguish from each other.
The main problem is that it’s not clear at the most basic level what mental health apps can do. Consumers have a general expectation that apps will help with mental distress but it’s not clear how much help to expect for what kind of problem and how they should work.
I’m aware of two main warehouses of mental health apps in English that have been developed to help consumers sort through these issues: One Mind PsyberGuide and M-Health Index & Navigation Database (MIND). This article briefly describes each of them.
Who runs them?
PsyberGuide was established in 2013 by One Mind, a non-profit org created in 1995 by Shari and Garen Staglin to support mental health through research, business, and media. PsyberGuide is just one of their components and it is run by academics at the University of California, Irvine and Northwestern University.
MIND was developed in 2019 by academics at the Digital Psychiatry Lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Much of its rating system was based on an evaluation model that was developed in collaboration with the American Psychiatric Association (Lagan et al., 2020).
How many apps in each warehouse?
By my counting as of October 11, 2023, PsyberGuide has 236 apps and MIND has 531. MIND has more partly because it includes apps for headaches, blood pressure, and smoking cessation.
PsyberGuide also keeps a list of apps no longer available (93 currently). If you are searching for a specific app, this is useful to let you know to stop searching for it.
How do they provide categories, filters, or facets for searching or sorting?
PsyberGuide includes 23 types of filters that are displayed as colorful buttons, which are easy to see all at once. These include eleven for disorders, six for therapy techniques (e.g., CBT, DBT), gratitude, chatbot/AI, connect to a peer, connect to a provider, assessment/screening, and productivity. In addition, it has three filters with multiple subcategories for Platform, Audience, and Cost. Also, one can sort the apps by Credibility rating, User Experience, Transparency, or App Name.
MIND has 105 filters divided amongst twelve categories: Cost, Developer Types, Engagements, Evidence & Clinical Foundations, Features, Functionalities, Inputs, Outputs, Privacy, Supported Conditions, Treatment Approaches, and Uses. The profile of each app uses an interesting way of standardizing the template that was visually appealing and provided information on each of the twelve categories without an overwhelming amount of text. MIND rates every app every six months.
PsyberGuide provides a narrative “professional review” for a subset of 33 apps. The reviewers were 24 professionals who have expertise or interest in the field. They were mostly psychologists, who were mostly from academia. Without getting into the weeds of what a narrative review of a mental health app ought to cover, the narratives seemed technical and more likely to appeal to professionals than to consumers. I found myself wondering, How would a real consumer review this app? Could I understand what I was supposed to do? Was it clear how to do it? Did it help?
A mild concern is that more than half were written during 2014-2016, and no new reviews were written after 2021. Apps don’t change much over time, but it makes one wonder if concerns expressed by reviewers were eventually addressed by developers.
In summary, each warehouse is overwhelming but it’s hard to fault them because the variety within and amongst apps is overwhelming. Each warehouse has its pros and cons. Both are well-executed efforts, but you should not expect that either one can be a laser guide to the best app for you, not even after hours sifting through reviews. The nature of the business is just too complicated and the individual differences of consumers are just too difficult to map onto different types of apps. In addition, there is no app that has discovered the secret sauce to become the dominant McDonald’s or Coca-Cola in the market. Fortunately, many good apps are totally or partially free and many others provide free trial periods, so you can find what suits your tastes through trial and error.
Sarah Lagan, Patrick Aquino, Margaret R. Emerson, Karen Fortuna, Robert Walker and John Torous. Actionable health app evaluation: translating expert frameworks into objective metrics. npj Digital Medicine (2020) 3:100 ; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-020-00312-4