There’s An App For That: Psychology On The iPhone

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Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression ...Read More

Let me piggyback this time on Brian Thompson‘s blog post from last week on the topic of Self-Help. Thompson had a number of interesting points about the effectiveness and  promise (or lack thereof) of Self-Help books.  Just to summarize briefly, he warns consumers of impostors who dole out advice without qualification, but he also contends that Self-Help books, if done right, can serve as a resource for those who cannot afford or are unwilling to engage in therapy.

Doing a quick literature search on my own, I couldn’t really find much in terms of stringent research studies on the question of just how effective Self-Help books are. Many of my colleagues are of the opinion that when it comes to helping people with longstanding emotional difficulties and problematic behavioral patterns, a book can’t really replace the personal encounter and relationship with a trained mental health professional. In my experience, there are some great Self-Help books out there that can, however, serve as a helpful addition in order to support the therapy process.  But then again, we’re mental health professionals, so you can accuse us of being biased.


With printed books moving over to eReaders like the Kindle and iPad, it seems that Self-Help is going digital, too. The current iPhone and iPad app craze does not leave Psychology on the sidelines. With apps out for pretty much anything one could think of (or at least I could think of), Psychology, too, has finally gone mobile and recently made it onto the iPhone. There’s already a bunch of different apps out there. 

My recent search under the keyword “psychotherapy” in the iTunes App Store rendered a total of seven hits, three of them were CBT apps, one was a resource locator, and three were uploaded books.  I thought I was off to a good start, but my next search term, “psychology”, got me a rather odd combo of six results:  Among them a collection of brief assessment tools, an app offering a 3D map of the human brain, a “pocket reader” giving a summary of Freud’s theory, and a Doodle Finger.  Browsing the Health and Fitness section in the App Store was somewhat more fruitful: There, somewhere between a gazillion of apps for diets, workout plans, and even African witchcraft spells, I found apps to help with relaxation, anxiety, anger management, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and substance use recovery.  I also came across apps that were books and databases, mental health news, and counseling locators.

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After some poking around, I concluded that the current Psychology apps for iPhone can be roughly distinguished into four categories:


1.)  Educational: Reference books, articles and news


2.)  Self-Help: Apps that provide information and tracking forms for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, apps that offer assessment tools, and apps giving encouragement and explanation of coping skills


3.)  Resources:  Databases that help locate mental health professionals, and medical/psychological dictionaries


4.)  Entertainment and distraction: Games and humor apps that are related to Psychology topics in the broadest sense



I thought that the quality of these apps varied widely in terms of their content as well as their design.  My attitude towards apps parallels my attitude towards Self-Help books: They won’t replace a therapist, but they can offer a great supplemental tool.  Just please use good judgment in terms of what you invest your time, money and energy in.


Here are a few things to consider:


What is the app for?  Don’t expect miracles. As Brian Thompson mentioned last week, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 


Is there any research on it?  Is there any indication that the content is based on evidence from research or general consensus on best practices in the field of mental health care?


Who developed the app?  Do some research into the app. Go to the developer’s website. What I noticed is that only a few of them give any information on who developed it, and who is behind the company selling it.  Do any of the developers have a background in mental health care?  Does the company have experience with psychological topics?


How old is it? Particularly when it comes to books and educational materials such as news articles and resource locators you might want to investigate how old the information is.  Some of the content can be rather dated.


What’s their privacy policy? Some of the self-help apps include questionnaires that you are supposed to fill out. Some of them request to know about your demographic data and your location. It won’t hurt to get a sense of how this information is being used and if you’re comfortable with that.



Do you  have any additional thoughts and suggestions on using Psychology-related iPhone apps? Do you have any favorites? Please don’t hesitate to post a comment below…. And stay tuned for a review of several individual apps in my next blog.







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