Background: The rapid growth in the use of mobile phone applications (apps) provides the opportunity to increase access to evidence-based mental health care.
Objective: Our goal was to systematically review the research evidence supporting the efficacy of mental health apps for mobile devices (such as smartphones and tablets) for all ages.
Methods: A comprehensive literature search (2008-2013) in MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, PsycINFO, PsycTESTS, Compendex, and Inspec was conducted. We included trials that examined the effects of mental health apps (for depression, anxiety, substance use, sleep disturbances, suicidal behavior, self-harm, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, stress, and gambling) delivered on mobile devices with a pre- to posttest design or compared with a control group. The control group could consist of wait list, treatment-as-usual, or another recognized treatment.
Results: In total, 5464 abstracts were identified. Of those, 8 papers describing 5 apps targeting depression, anxiety, and substance abuse met the inclusion criteria. Four apps provided support from a mental health professional. Results showed significant reductions in depression, stress, and substance use. Within-group and between-group intention-to-treat effect sizes ranged from 0.29-2.28 and 0.01-0.48 at posttest and follow-up, respectively.
Conclusions: Mental health apps have the potential to be effective and may significantly improve treatment accessibility. However, the majority of apps that are currently available lack scientific evidence about their efficacy. The public needs to be educated on how to identify the few evidence-based mental health apps available in the public domain to date. Further rigorous research is required to develop and test evidence-based programs. Given the small number of studies and participants included in this review, the high risk of bias, and unknown efficacy of long-term follow-up, current findings should be interpreted with caution, pending replication. Two of the 5 evidence-based mental health apps are currently commercially available in app stores.
Keywords: anxiety; depression; mobile applications; mobile mental health; mobile phones; self-help; stress; substance use.