Mobile Apps That Promote Emotion Regulation, Positive Mental Health, and Well-being in the General Population: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

JMIR Ment Health. 2021 Nov 8;8(11):e31170. doi: 10.2196/31170.


Background: Among the general public, there appears to be a growing need and interest in receiving digital mental health and well-being support. In response to this, mental health apps (MHapps) are becoming available for monitoring, managing, and promoting positive mental health and well-being. Thus far, evidence supports favorable outcomes when users engage with MHapps, yet there is a relative paucity of reviews on apps that support positive mental health and well-being.

Objective: We aimed to systematically review the available research on MHapps that promote emotion regulation, positive mental health, and well-being in the general population aged 18-45 years. More specifically, the review aimed at providing a systematic description of the theoretical background and features of MHapps while evaluating any potential effectiveness.

Methods: A comprehensive literature search of key databases, including MEDLINE (via Ovid), EMBASE (via Ovid), PsycINFO (via Ovid), Web of Science, and the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), was performed until January 2021. Studies were included if they described standalone mental health and well-being apps for adults without a formal mental health diagnosis. The quality of all studies was assessed against the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool. In addition, the Cochrane Risk-of-Bias tool (RoB-2) was used to assess randomized control trials (RCTs). Data were extracted using a modified extraction form from the Cochrane Handbook of Systematic Reviews. A narrative synthesis and meta-analysis were then undertaken to address the review aims.

Results: In total, 3156 abstracts were identified. Of these, 52 publications describing 48 MHapps met the inclusion criteria. Together, the studies evaluated interventions across 15 countries. Thirty-nine RCTs were identified suggesting some support for the role of individual MHapps in improving and promoting mental health and well-being. Regarding the pooled effect, MHapps, when compared to controls, showed a small effect for reducing mental health symptoms (k=19, Hedges g=-0.24, 95% CI -0.34 to -0.14; P<.001) and improving well-being (k=13, g=0.17, 95% CI 0.05-0.29, P=.004), and a medium effect for emotion regulation (k=6, g=0.49, 95% CI 0.23-0.74, P<.001). There is also a wide knowledge base of creative and innovative ways to engage users in techniques such as mood monitoring and guided exercises. Studies were generally assessed to contribute unclear or a high risk of bias, or to be of medium to low methodological quality.

Conclusions: The emerging evidence for MHapps that promote positive mental health and well-being suggests promising outcomes. Despite a wide range of MHapps, few apps specifically promote emotion regulation. However, our findings may position emotion regulation as an important mechanism for inclusion in future MHapps. A fair proportion of the included studies were pilot or feasibility trials (k=17, 33%), and full-scale RCTs reported high attrition rates and nondiverse samples. Given the number and pace at which MHapps are being released, further robust research is warranted to inform the development and testing of evidence-based programs.

Keywords: MHapp, mHealth; effectiveness; emotion regulation; management; mental health; mental health app; mobile apps; monitoring; systematic review; well-being.

Publication types

  • Review