In times of heightened stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are more inclined to seek mental health support online — especially if they are in self-isolation.
Dr. Marianne Hrabok, clinical psychologist and former professional practice leader for psychology in Edmonton with Alberta Health Services, says people are likely to feel more stressed, anxious, sad and angry during times of crisis.
“People’s need for support goes up quite a bit in these challenging times and of course what we’re going through now is unprecedented,” she said.
“Research from natural disasters and other events that leave people traumatized or stressed clearly shows that people need more support at times like this.”
Kaitlin O’Toole, an occupational therapist who did research with the University of Alberta, says mental health apps could allow people to be more comfortable in seeking support.
“This kind of gives you a way to get more comfortable with the ideas. None of these apps are supposed to replace in-person therapy. This was to supplement it and give you a way to practice the techniques outside of therapy,” she said.
High need in times of social distancing
In 2017, Hrabok examined 50 mental health support apps and the quality of their content, accessibility, usability and user reviews. She narrowed the list down to about 10 that were the most effective.
Hrabok says apps can provide important support in a time when a lot of people are social distancing.
“We know over two-thirds of Canadians have mobile phones so it’s a way that people can really quickly access help.”
Hrabok says based on her research, the best apps are created from within an organization, such as Canada’s Department of National Defence.
“I would say if you’re looking for accountability … it’s good to look for an app that was created as part of a health-care organization or as part of an educational institution,” said Hrabok.
O’Toole’s research focused on apps available to military members and first responders. She examined 12 apps and found they correlated well with interventions offered by therapists and occupational therapists.
O’Toole recommends people look at the credentials of the developer because not all are developed by mental health professionals.
“Because you’d have a better sense they know what they’re talking about, they know the information that their population needs,” she said.
Hrabok, who’s also an adjunct professor in the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Alberta, says mental health support apps don’t have a “barrier to entry.”
“Almost anyone who has the skills to create an app can create an app,” she said. “So they’re essentially coming on to market for download faster than can be evaluated.”
Read reviews, try more than one, know the data policy
O’Toole says it’s important to read reviews before trying an app.
It’s also important that apps that explain the science behind the activities and connect you to other services, she said.
As for Hrabok, some of the apps she would recommend are Tactical Breather and Headspace.
“Have a good understanding of how your data will be used and who has your data,” she said. “When you’re evaluating, have a little bit of a critical eye toward the content as well.”