Mental Health Apps Made Me Feel More Overwhelmed Than Ever
Products meant to make me feel better just stressed me out more.
Image: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
A few apps on my phone now serve as a daily, subtle reminder of one of the worst nights of my life. The irony is, they were kind of meant to do the opposite.
It started with a series of push notifications, first from the mental health app 7 Cups:
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
I remember the exact phrasing of this notification because of the moment it arrived: I was crouched under the lobby desk of a darkened motel just off the Las Vegas Strip, half a mile from the mass shooting that had occurred minutes earlier.
This was October 1st, the last night of a trip for a friend’s birthday, and we chose the Mandalay Bay casino for a few drinks. Just as we’d settled in, a man 32 floors above us opened fire from his hotel room window and killed 58 people across the street.
In the confusion, we ran to a nearby motel for shelter. My attention was glued to a tiny tube television someone stuck under the reception desk, watching moments-old news footage of rounds of shots fired into the crowd so close to us. “Happiness is a butterfly?” I wanted to smash my phone into the faux-wood wainscoting.
The next morning—or, what had technically turned into the next day, as my friends and I trekked back to our Airbnb in the early morning hours and sat up all night glued to the news—Daylio, another journaling app I’d downloaded before the trip, faithfully asked me how I was doing. So, in the bleary Nevada daylight, I told it:
The day after the shooting, I’d planned to take off from Vegas on what had suddenly become a psychologically daunting solo trip through California’s desert. I decided to try to keep the apps—however grating their pings and pushes felt at the time, to see if they could help me process what just happened.
We’re in the midst of a mental health app explosion, with hundreds of apps on the market to track, assess, and manage one’s well-being. Some of these are backed by peer-reviewed science and have the potential to be life-changing. Many more are at best bloatware bullshit—and at worst, actively harmful.
I downloaded half-a-dozen apps shortly before I left for this vacation, intending to prove a different point: About how the market is saturated with Tazo-tea-tag level self-help bullshit disguised as a helping hand for people suffering from depression or illness. Overuse of our phones is already destroying our mental health from a young age. I had a hunch putting more trust in them to Band-aid over anxieties with digital “communities” and breathing exercises wasn’t enough.
But witnessing a harrowing national tragedy ended up providing me with a much more intense insight into mental health apps. As complicated as my feelings around them were before, they would become tenfold moreso after that trip.
"I wound up feeling overwhelmed, underwhelmed, guilty about forgetting to open them."
The apps’ constant chipper questions and reminders were mostly tone deaf and annoying, but occasionally they were comforting. As I processed the incident and my very small place in it, I blared free meditations on 7 Cups as company in motel rooms, campers, and my rental car. I kept logging my mental state on journaling apps Daylio, Pacifica, and Glow out of habit—even when I wasn’t ready to boot Talkspace back up, or talk to friends back home about the trip.
Some of the apps included message boards or chat features: Lack of social support and loneliness are often linked to depression and anxiety, and the option to talk to people who might understand. To be sure, these are important resources for people who really need it.
I talked to Cai Kingston, a friend who's been using PTSD Coach, an app developed by the US Department of Veteran Affairs for people living with post traumatic stress disorder. He's been using it for about a year. The most useful aspect of this app, for him, is a weekly symptom assessment, which helps track his healing progress. Other than that, it doesn't antagonize him with push notifications. He's able to use the app how he wants, when he needs it—if he's feeling angry and recognizes it as a symptom of PTSD, he can go to the app for suggestions (such as recommendation to get some fresh air or food) and meditations.
"This works for me because, aside from the assessment reminder, I'm always the one opening a dialog with the app," Kingston told me in an email. "I come to it when I need it. It doesn't haunt me. I can't imagine using a reminder app that badgers me to drink water and wash my socks. I'd get overstimulated."
Amber Discko, who helped manage social media on Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff, and who has lived with depression and anxiety throughout her life, also found the mental health app world severely lacking. So, they created their own.
“With the rise of wellness technology, I searched the App Store for something that would help me function,” Discko told me in an email. “I wound up feeling overwhelmed, underwhelmed, guilty about forgetting to open them, and ultimately ended up giving up on my search. I knew that I'd never find what I needed and knew I'd have to create it for myself and others who needed this.”
They’re developing Aloe, an app that lets users set customized reminders to take care of themselves, such as drinking water every two hours or logging your mood. Simple reminders like these can literally be life-saving for someone with severe depression.
But looking back at my own app logs, I lied a lot (while trying to deny that I was feeling shitty and not having an incredible time striking out on this trip alone), essentially defeating the apps’ purposes. It would be a lot harder for me to lie to a therapist in a face-to-face conversation.
The grating nature of many of the currently available apps is something Discko’s trying to avoid. “We've found that helpful notifications are ones which read and feel gentle and suggestive rather than aggressive and demanding,” they said. They’re doing more research around tone and working in notifications, and launched a Kickstarter to get the app funded.
“We know that it’s challenging for people to suppress unwanted thoughts,” Josh Magee, a professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, told me in a phone conversation. “A lot of times attempting to put those thoughts out of mind may actually result in more reminders of those topics, than if I had simply not been interrupted. It can be a vicious cycle, if I get these pings and try to put them out of mind.”
It’s worthwhile to note that while I went into my month-long experiment with a lot of skepticism, I also already knew that I am extremely terrible at self-control, self-administering, and properly using these apps, even when a real human is holding me accountable.
I realize this because this wasn’t my first experience with online therapy apps. In August, two months before my Vegas trip, I’d ghosted my virtual therapist.
It was my first time using Talkspace, one of many apps that promises a personally tailored therapy experience from inside a smartphone. Answer some questions, get assigned a licensed therapist, and enter a chat room that’s open 24/7. My insurance doesn’t cover in-person therapy, which can cost $200 an hour or more in NYC out-of-pocket, so I turned to apps for my anxiety.
During my first experience with Talkspace, my pocket therapist hadn’t done anything to deserve a ghosting, but our communication styles were different. And this was a time when I needed communication to be frictionless, if not effortless. I could have told her this (and client feedback is something Talkspace highly encourages), but I was already overwhelmed, anxious, and emotionally drained—the reasons I’d sought counseling in the first place—so I quietly requested to change therapists instead.
A few hours later, she sent a message in our chat room:
My adrenaline spiked, like I’d gotten a text from a hurt ex. Her simple question threw me into a guilty spiral. I didn’t respond. I can’t even get this extremely easy chatroom therapy right without sabotaging it, I thought. I turned my phone off for the night.
I told Magee about my minor e-therapy crisis. He estimated that around 15 percent of people in the US may have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimes, with many more having significant symptoms of anxiety. There just aren’t enough specialists to treat everyone, and high costs, lack of access and social stigma keep many from seeking traditional, in-person help—which is where therapy apps come in.
“How was your day?” it asked, like it does every day. I marked it “Meh” and closed the app, then opened Twitter.
But the way many of these apps let users determine our own “diagnosis” without oversight can make symptoms worse. Phones already enable avoidance of real-life problems for many of us, and the apps within are designed to hook us with digital dopamine hits of likes and comments, just like our social media platforms.
I was in the middle of writing a sentence of this article when a notification from Daylio buzzed my phone. “How was your day?” it asked, like it does every day. I marked it “Meh” and closed the app, then opened Twitter. An hour after Daylio’s notification, one comes up for another mental health app, 7 Cups. It’s a catch-all app that offers chat services with “listeners,” a variety of guided meditations, and different options for engaging with a community of other users.
The notification was a vapid quote about spreading my wings.
It’s not just their tugging at my attention span that was ruining these apps for me. Many of them are shallow, providing pat answers to serious problems.
The market is just so wild and untested, Magee said, that it’s hard for consumers to differentiate what works and what doesn’t.
In some ways, trying to cope with depression and anxiety felt like scrambling through that panicked casino lobby. Everything around you is saccharine and beckoning, in vivid, manic color, but you just want to find the path that leads to fresh air and safety.
It was a chaotic, terrifying situation, and one that thankfully most people won’t experience, and least of all need a specific app for. The apps didn’t help me cope during or after this exceptional edge-case scenario. No one designs digital diaries with mass shootings in mind, and I wouldn’t expect them to. But most self-help and therapy apps still require a lot of personal accountability on the user’s part—a burden I’m not sure someone seeking a hand out of the confusion should be expected to bear.
For my own mental well-being, at least, I can’t wait to delete all of these apps. And maybe find a real-life therapist to talk to all of this about.