Standalone Smartphone Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Based Ecological Momentary Interventions to Increase Mental Health: Narrative Review

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2020 Nov 12;8(11):e19836. doi: 10.2196/19836.


Background: A growing number of psychological interventions are delivered via smartphones with the aim of increasing the efficacy and effectiveness of these treatments and providing scalable access to interventions for improving mental health. Most of the scientifically tested apps are based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles, which are considered the gold standard for the treatment of most mental health problems.

Objective: This review investigates standalone smartphone-based ecological momentary interventions (EMIs) built on principles derived from CBT that aim to improve mental health.

Methods: We searched the MEDLINE, PsycINFO, EMBASE, and PubMed databases for peer-reviewed studies published between January 1, 2007, and January 15, 2020. We included studies focusing on standalone app-based approaches to improve mental health and their feasibility, efficacy, or effectiveness. Both within- and between-group designs and studies with both healthy and clinical samples were included. Blended interventions, for example, app-based treatments in combination with psychotherapy, were not included. Selected studies were evaluated in terms of their design, that is, choice of the control condition, sample characteristics, EMI content, EMI delivery characteristics, feasibility, efficacy, and effectiveness. The latter was defined in terms of improvement in the primary outcomes used in the studies.

Results: A total of 26 studies were selected. The results show that EMIs based on CBT principles can be successfully delivered, significantly increase well-being among users, and reduce mental health symptoms. Standalone EMIs were rated as helpful (mean 70.8%, SD 15.3; n=4 studies) and satisfying for users (mean 72.6%, SD 17.2; n=7 studies).

Conclusions: Study quality was heterogeneous, and feasibility was often not reported in the reviewed studies, thus limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from the existing data. Together, the studies show that EMIs may help increase mental health and thus support individuals in their daily lives. Such EMIs provide readily available, scalable, and evidence-based mental health support. These characteristics appear crucial in the context of a global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic but may also help reduce personal and economic costs of mental health impairment beyond this situation or in the context of potential future pandemics.

Keywords: CBT; COVID-19; EMI; cognitive behavioral therapy; ecological momentary intervention; mHealth; mobile app; mobile phone; smartphone.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy*
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Ecological Momentary Assessment*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Mental Health*
  • Mobile Applications*
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Smartphone*
  • Telemedicine / methods*