Purpose of Review
Mental health apps are intriguing yet challenging tools for addressing barriers to treatment in primary care. In the current review, we seek to assist primary care professionals with evaluating and integrating mental health apps into practice. We briefly summarize two leading frameworks for evaluating mental health apps and conduct a systematic review of mental health apps across a variety of areas commonly encountered in primary care.
Existing frameworks can guide professionals and patients through the process of identifying apps and evaluating dimensions such as privacy and security, credibility, and user experience. For specific apps, several problem areas appear to have relatively more scientific evaluation in the current app landscape, including PTSD, smoking, and alcohol use. Other areas such as eating disorders not only lack evaluation, but contain a significant subset of apps providing potentially harmful advice.
Overall, individuals seeking mental health apps will likely encounter strengths such as symptom-tracking and psychoeducational components, while encountering common weaknesses such as insufficient privacy settings and little integration of empirically supported techniques. While mental health apps may have more promise than ever, significant barriers to finding functional, usable, effective apps remain for health professionals and patients alike.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
References and Recommended Reading
Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance
Hacker Noon. How much time do people spend on their mobile phones in 2017?. 2017. https://hackernoon.com/how-much-time-do-people-spend-on-their-mobile-phones-in-2017-e5f90a0b10a6.
Rui P, Okeyode T. National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2015 state and national summary tables. 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ahcd/namcs_summary/2015_namcs_web_tables.pdf
Loeb DF, Bayliss EA, Binswanger IA, Candrian C, DeGruy FV. Primary care physician perceptions on caring for complex patients with medical and mental illness. J Gen Intern Med. 2012;27(8):945–52.
Mickus M, Colenda CC, Hogan AJ. Knowledge of mental health benefits and preferences for type of mental health providers among the general public. Psychiatr Serv. 2000;51(2):199–202.
Yaman H, Yavuz E, Er A, Vural R, Albayrak Y, Yardimci A, et al. The use of mobile smart devices and medical apps in the family practice setting. J Eval Clin Pract. 2016;22(2):290–6.
Torous J, Friedman R, Keshvan M. Smartphone ownership and interest in mobile applications to monitor symptoms of mental health conditions. J Med Internet Res. 2014;16(1):1–8.
Pew Research Center. Mobile fact sheet. 2018. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/.
Ramirez V, Johnson E, Gonzalez C, Ramirez V, Rubino B, Rossetti G. Assessing the use of mobile health technology by patients: an observational study in primary care clinics. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2016;4(2):e41.
American Psychiatric Association. App Evaluation Model. 2018. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/mental-health-apps/app-evaluation-model
One Mind Inc. PsyberGuide. 2018. https://psyberguide.org/.
Berman AH, Gajecki M, Sinadinovic K, Andersson C. Mobile interventions targeting risky drinking among university students: a review. Curr Addict Rep. 2016;3(2):166–74.
Aguirre RTP, McCoy MK, Roan M. Development guidelines from a study of suicide prevention mobile applications (apps). J Technol Hum Serv. 2013;31(3):269–93.
Choo CC, Burton AAD. Mobile phone apps for behavioral interventions for at-risk drinkers in Australia: literature review. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2018;6(2):e18.
de la Torre I, Castillo G, Arambarri J, López-Coronado M, Franco MA. Mobile apps for suicide prevention: review of virtual stores and literature. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2017;5(10):e130.
Cohn AM, Hunter-Reel D, Hagman BT, Mitchell J. Promoting behavior change from alcohol use through mobile technology: the future of ecological momentary assessment. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011;35(12):2209–15.
Larsen ME, Nicholas J, Christensen H. A systematic assessment of smartphone tools for suicide prevention. PLoS One. 2016;11(4):e0152285.
Fowler LA, Holt SL, Joshi D. Mobile technology-based interventions for adult users of alcohol: a systematic review of the literature. Addict Behav. 2016;62:25–34.
• Luxton DD, June JD, Chalker SA. Mobile health technologies for suicide prevention: feature review and recommendations for use in clinical care. Curr Treat Options Psychiatry. 2015;2(4):349–62. Clinically oriented review of mobile health in suicide prevention, emphasis on future technological capabilities
Giroux I, Goulet A, Mercier J, Jacques C, Bouchard S. Online and mobile interventions for problem gambling, alcohol, and drugs: a systematic review. Front Psychol. 2017;8:954.
Pospos S, Young IT, Downs N, Iglewicz A, Depp C, Chen JY, et al. Web-based tools and mobile applications to mitigate burnout, depression, and suicidality among healthcare students and professionals: a systematic review. Acad Psychiatry. 2018;42(1):109–20.
Hoeppner BB, Schick MR, Kelly LM, Hoeppner SS, Bergman B, Kelly JF. There is an app for that—or is there? A content analysis of publicly available smartphone apps for managing alcohol use. J Subst Abus Treat. 2017;82:67–73.
Witt K, Spittal MJ, Carter G, Pirkis J, Hetrick S, Currier D, et al. Effectiveness of online and mobile telephone applications (‘apps’) for the self-management of suicidal ideation and self-harm: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2017;17(1):297.
Kazemi DM, Borsari B, Levine MJ, Li S, Lamberson KA, Matta LA. A systematic review of the mHealth interventions to prevent alcohol and substance abuse. J Health Commun. 2017;22(5):413–32.
Meredith SE, Alessi SM, Petry NM. Smartphone applications to reduce alcohol consumption and help patients with alcohol use disorder: a state-of-the-art review. Adv Heal Care Technol. 2015;1:47–54.
Fairburn CG, Rothwell ER. Apps and eating disorders: a systematic clinical appraisal. Int J Eat Disord. 2015;48(7):1038–46.
Milward J, Khadjesari Z, Fincham-Campbell S, Deluca P, Watson R, Drummond C. User preferences for content, features, and style for an app to reduce harmful drinking in young adults: analysis of user feedback in app stores and focus group interviews. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2016;4(2):e47.
Juarascio AS, Manasse SM, Goldstein SP, Forman EM, Butryn ML. Review of smartphone applications for the treatment of eating disorders. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2015;23(1):1–11.
O’Rourke L, Humphris G, Baldacchino A. Electronic communication based interventions for hazardous young drinkers: a systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016;68:880–90.
Quanbeck A, Chih M-Y, Isham A, Johnson R, Gustafson D. Mobile delivery of treatment for alcohol use disorders. Alcohol Res. 2014;36(1):111–22.
Bakker D, Kazantzis N, Rickwood D, Rickard N. Mental health smartphone apps: review and evidence-based recommendations for future developments. JMIR Ment Health. 2016;3(1):e7.
Savic M, Best D, Rodda S, Lubman DI. Exploring the focus and experiences of smartphone applications for addiction recovery. J Addict Dis. 2013;32(3):310–9.
Bateman DR, Srinivas B, Emmett TW, Schleyer TK, Holden RJ, Hendrie HC, et al. Categorizing health outcomes and efficacy of mHealth apps for persons with cognitive impairment: a systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(8):e301.
Weaver ER, Horyniak DR, Jenkinson R, Dietze P, Lim MSC. Let’s get wasted! and other apps: characteristics, acceptability, and use of alcohol-related smartphone applications. J Med Internet Res. 2013;15(6):e9.
Christensen H, Petrie K. State of the e-mental health field in Australia: where are we now? Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2013;47(2):117–20.
Donker T, Petrie K, Proudfoot J, Clarke J, Birch MR, Christensen H. Smartphones for smarter delivery of mental health programs: a systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2013;15(11):e247.
Alyami M, Giri B, Alyami H, Sundram F. Social anxiety apps: a systematic review and assessment of app descriptors across mobile store platforms. Evid Based Ment Health. 2017;20(3):65–70.
Lui JHL, Marcus DK, Barry CT. Evidence-based apps? A review of mental health mobile applications in a psychotherapy context. Prof Psychol Res Pract. 2017;48(3):199–210.
• Bry LJ, Chou T, Miguel E, Comer JS. Consumer smartphone apps marketed for child and adolescent anxiety: a systematic review and content analysis. Behav Ther. 2018;49(2):249–61. Reviews current child and adolescent anxiety apps, including clinical implications and future technological directions.
Menon V, Rajan T, Sarkar S. Psychotherapeutic applications of mobile phone-based technologies: a systematic review of current research and trends. Indian J Psychol Med. 2017;39(1):4–11.
Firth J, Torous J, Nicholas J, Carney R, Rosenbaum S, Sarris J. Can smartphone mental health interventions reduce symptoms of anxiety? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2017;218(January):15–22.
Rathbone AL, Prescott J. The use of mobile apps and SMS messaging as physical and mental health interventions: systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(8):e295.
Rodriguez-Paras C, Tippey K, Brown E, Sasangohar F, Creech S, Kum H-C, et al. Posttraumatic stress disorder and mobile health: app investigation and scoping literature review. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2017;5(10):e156.
Runyan JD, Steinke EG. Virtues, ecological momentary assessment/intervention and smartphone technology. Front Psychol. 2015;6:481.
Sucala M, Cuijpers P, Muench F, Cardoș R, Soflau R, Dobrean A, et al. Anxiety: there is an app for that. A systematic review of anxiety apps. Depress Anxiety. 2017;34(6):518–25.
• Van Ameringen M, Turna J, Khalesi Z, Pullia K, Patterson B. There is an app for that! The current state of mobile applications (apps) for DSM-5 obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and mood disorders. Depress Anxiety. 2017;34(6):526–39. Comprehensive review of apps across anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and mood disorders
Van Singer M, Chatton A, Khazaal Y. Quality of smartphone apps related to panic disorder. Front Psychiatry. 2015;6:96.
Dubad M, Winsper C, Meyer C, Livanou M, Marwaha S. A systematic review of the psychometric properties, usability and clinical impacts of mobile mood-monitoring applications in young people. Psychol Med. 2018;48(2):208–28.
Grist R, Porter J, Stallard P. Mental health mobile apps for preadolescents and adolescents: a systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(5):e176.
Dogan E, Sander C, Wagner X, Hegerl U, Kohls E. Smartphone-based monitoring of objective and subjective data in affective disorders: where are we and where are we going? Systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(7):e262.
Hollis C, Falconer C, Martin J, Whittington C, Stockton S, Glazebrook C, et al. Annual research review: digital health interventions for children and young people with mental health problems: a systematic and meta-review. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2017;58(4):474–503.
Gliddon E, Barnes SJ, Murray G, Michalak EE. Online and mobile technologies for self-management in bipolar disorder: a systematic review. Psychiatr Rehabil J. 2017;40(3):309–19.
Moussa Y, Mahdanian AA, Yu C, Segal M, Looper KJ, Vahia IV, et al. Mobile health technology in late-life mental illness: a focused literature review. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2017;25(8):865–72.
Meyer TD, Casarez R, Mohite SS, La Rosa N, Iyengar MS. Novel technology as platform for interventions for caregivers and individuals with severe mental health illnesses: a systematic review. J Affect Disord. 2018;226:169–77.
Nicholas J, Fogarty AS, Boydell K, Christensen H. The reviews are in: a qualitative content analysis of consumer perspectives on apps for bipolar disorder. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(4):e105.
Seko Y, Kidd S, Wiljer D, McKenzie K. Youth mental health interventions via mobile phones: a scoping review. Cyberpsychol, Behav Soc Netw. 2014;17(9):591–602.
Nicholas J, Larsen ME, Proudfoot J, Christensen H. Mobile apps for bipolar disorder: a systematic review of features and content quality. J Med Internet Res. 2015;17(8):e198.
Mani M, Kavanagh DJ, Hides L, Stoyanov SR. Review and evaluation of mindfulness-based iPhone apps. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2015;3(3):e82.
Rathbone AL, Clarry L, Prescott J. Assessing the efficacy of mobile health apps using the basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy: systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(11):e399.
Callan JA, Wright J, Siegle GJ, Howland RH, Kepler BB. Use of computer and mobile technologies in the treatment of depression. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2017;31(3):311–8.
Sucala M, Schnur JB, Glazier K, Miller SJ, Green JP, Montgomery GH. Hypnosis—there’s an app for that: a systematic review of hypnosis apps. Int J Clin Exp Hypn. 2013;61(4):463–74.
Huguet A, Rao S, McGrath PJ, Wozney L, Wheaton M, Conrod J, et al. A systematic review of cognitive behavioral therapy and behavioral activation apps for depression. PLoS One. 2016;11(5):e0154248.
Abroms LC, Lee Westmaas J, Bontemps-Jones J, Ramani R, Mellerson J. A content analysis of popular smartphone apps for smoking cessation. Am J Prev Med. 2013;45(6):732–6.
Abroms LC, Padmanabhan N, Thaweethai L, Phillips T. iPhone apps for smoking cessation: A content analysis. Am J Prev Med. 2011;40(3):279–85.
Bennett ME, Toffey K, Dickerson F, Himelhoch S, Katsafanas E, Savage CLG. A review of android apps for smoking cessation. J Smok Cessat. 2015;10(2):106–15.
Shen N, Levitan M-J, Johnson A, Bender JL, Hamilton-Page M, Jadad AA, et al. Finding a depression app: a review and content analysis of the depression app marketplace. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2015;3(1):e16.
Ferron JC, Brunette MF, Geiger P, Marsch LA, Adachi-Mejia AM, Bartels SJ. Mobile phone apps for smoking cessation: quality and usability among smokers with psychosis. JMIR Hum Factors. 2017;4(1):e7.
Ghorai K, Akter S, Khatun F, Ray P. mHealth for smoking cessation programs: a systematic review. J Pers Med. 2014;4(3):412–23.
• Haskins BL, Lesperance D, Gibbons P, Boudreaux ED. A systematic review of smartphone applications for smoking cessation. Transl Behav Med. 2017;7(2):292–9. Describes specific smoking cessation apps with discussion of features and evidence
Bell IH, Lim MH, Rossell SL, Thomas N. Ecological momentary assessment and intervention in the treatment of psychotic disorders: a systematic review. Psychiatr Serv. 2017;68:1172–81.
Heminger C, Schindler-Ruwisch J, Lorien Abroms L. Smoking cessation support for pregnant women: role of mobile technology. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2016;7:15–26.
Firth J, Torous J. Smartphone apps for schizophrenia: a systematic review. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2015;3(4):e102.
Regmi K, Kassim N, Ahmad N, Tuah NA. Effectiveness of mobile apps for smoking cessation: a review. Tob Prev Cessat. 2017;3(April):12.
Thornton L, Quinn C, Birrell L, Guillaumier A, Shaw B, Forbes E, et al. Free smoking cessation mobile apps available in Australia: a quality review and content analysis. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2017;41(6):625–30.
Whittaker R, Borland R, Bullen C, Lin RB, McRobbie H, Rodgers A, et al. Mobile phone-based interventions for smoking cessation (review). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;4(4):1–22.
Coulon SM, Monroe CM, West DS. A systematic, multi-domain review of mobile smartphone apps for evidence-based stress management. Am J Prev Med. 2016;51(1):95–105.
Lyzwinski LN, Caffery L, Bambling M, Edirippulige S. A systematic review of electronic mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions for weight, weight-related behaviors, and psychological stress. Telemed J E Health. 2017;24(3):173–84.
Bhattarai P, Newton-John T, Phillips JL. Quality and usability of arthritic pain self-management apps for older adults: a systematic review. Pain Med. 2017;19:471–84.
De La Vega R, Miró J. mHealth: a strategic field without a solid scientific soul. A systematic review of pain-related apps. PLoS One. 2014;9(7):e101312.
Lalloo C, Jibb LA, Rivera J, Agarwal A, Stinson JN. “There’s a pain app for that”: review of patient-targeted smartphone applications for pain management. Clin J Pain. 2015;31(6):557–63.
Machado GC, Pinheiro MB, Lee H, Ahmed OH, Hendrick P, Williams C, et al. Smartphone apps for the self-management of low back pain: a systematic review. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2016;30(6):1098–109.
Portelli P, Eldred C. A quality review of smartphone applications for the management of pain. Br J Pain. 2016;10(3):135–40.
Wallace LS, Dhingra LK. A systematic review of smartphone applications for chronic pain available for download in the United States. J Opioid Manag. 2014;10(1):63–8.
Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB, Monahan PO, Lowe B. Anxiety disorders in primary care: prevalence, impairment, comorbidity, and detection. Ann Intern Med. 2007;146:317–25.
Bush NE, Skopp N, Smolenski D, Crumpton R, Fairall J. Behavioral screening measures delivered with a smartphone app: psychometric properties and user preference. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2013;201(11):991–5.
Fann JR, Berry DL, Wolpin S, Austin-Seymour M, Bush N, Halpenny B, et al. Depression screening using the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 administered on a touch screen computer. Psychooncology. 2009;18(1):14–22.
Depp CA, Ceglowski J, Wang VC, Yaghouti F, Mausbach BT, Thompson WK, et al. Augmenting psychoeducation with a mobile intervention for bipolar disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Affect Disord. 2015;174:23–30.
Wenze SJ, Armey MF, Miller IW. Feasibility and acceptability of a mobile intervention to improve treatment adherence in bipolar disorder: a pilot study. Behav Modif. 2014;38(4):497–515.
Lal S, Dell’Elce J, Tucci N, Fuhrer R, Tamblyn R, Malla A. Preferences of young adults with first-episode psychosis for receiving specialized mental health services using technology: a survey study. JMIR Ment Health. 2015;2(2):e18.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Treating tobacco use and dependence: 2008 update. 2018. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/clinicians-providers/guidelines-recommendations/tobacco/index.html.
Hoeppner BB, Hoeppner SS, Seaboyer L, Schick MR, Wu GWY, Bergman BG, et al. How smart are smartphone apps for smoking cessation? A content analysis. Nicotine Tob Res. 2016;18(5):1025–31.
Proudfoot J, Parker G, Pavlovic DH, Manicavasagar V, Adler E, Whitton A. Community attitudes to the appropriation of mobile phones for monitoring and managing depression, anxiety, and stress. J Med Internet Res. 2010;12(5):e64.
Capon H, Hall W, Fry C, Carter A. Realising the technological promise of smartphones in addiction research and treatment: an ethical review. Int J Drug Policy. 2016;36:47–57.
Conflict of Interest
Joshua Magee reports grant K23DA037320 from National Institutes of Health supporting his work on the study. Sarah Adut declares that she has no conflict of interest. Kevin Brazill declares that he has no conflict of interest. Stephen Warnick declares that he has no conflict of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Mental Health in Primary Care
About this article
Cite this article
Magee, J.C., Adut, S., Brazill, K. et al. Mobile App Tools for Identifying and Managing Mental Health Disorders in Primary Care. Curr Treat Options Psych 5, 345–362 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40501-018-0154-0
- Primary care