Dr. Wendy Zhao
Digital Tools For Mental Health
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Mobile health apps are portable and accessible self-help resources for non-urgent mental health issues. They can also be a valuable adjunct to clinician based care. Whether you want to take control of your anxiety or build better health habits, there's an app for that. With so many options out there, it can feel overwhelming knowing which one to try. Below are a few well reviewed free and low-cost apps to get you started.
* It's important to note that none of the apps are intended as a treatment substitute for serious psychological disorders. Mobile health apps are created for the general public and some can potentially worsen symptoms for select individuals. Please consult a mental health professional or your GP if you experience distress using any self-help resources.
Anxiety and Mood Apps
MindShift -- FREE
Best for: anxiety
Credibility: the app was created by AnxietyCanada, a nonprofit group composed of volunteer clinicians and researchers
Easily log your mood with an emotion wheel on the Home Screen, with options to add details and specific anxiety symptoms. You can also view a summary of your check-ins and track your anxiety over time.
Distinct modules for General Worry, Social Anxiety, Perfectionism, Panic and Phobias. Each module contains detailed information about the disorder, symptoms, as well as 10 Key Strategies for relief.
CBT-based tools to manage anxiety, such as thought records, coping cards, belief experiments, and graded exposures. Bonus: you can choose between a male and a female facilitator voice for the guided relaxation and meditation exercises.
An easy to find Quick Relief button to access coping tools when you are in distress. These include guided breathing, tips to shift your thinking, grounding exercises, and crisis hotlines in Canada and the U.S. if you are in need of immediate help.
Works well in conjunction with therapy. You can track and share your check-ins, thought records, behavioural experiments, exposures, and other progress in the app with your therapist and others in your circle of care.
Set and schedule goals you want to work towards such as self-care and skills practice.
Calm In The Storm -- FREE
Best for: crisis management
Credibility: created in partnership with Klinic Community Health (a nonprofit health care centre), the Winnipeg Suicide Prevention Network, and the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
The Check-In module guides you in assessing your stress with questions such as "Where do you feel stress in your body?". Select from a list of symptoms (emotional, cognitive, behavioural, physical) and rate your stress on a 10-point scale. The app will recommend practices to reduce your stress accordingly, or suggest contacting a crisis centre when it detects high risk symptoms. You can track your stress and symptoms over time.
Relief module provides quick access to a variety of evidence based coping tools such as guided meditations, body scans, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Learn module contains in-depth information about stress, including signs of stress, how to assess and manage stress, and ways to stay safe when you're in high distress.
Create a customized safety plan on the app. The app helps you identify your personal warning signs, motivations to live, coping strategies, and sources for help. The app also provides numbers to crisis hotlines according to where you are located in Canada.
Conveniently access the app through your phone or computer.
Rootd -- Free + Premium plan subscription
Best for: panic attacks
The main feature of the app is an easy access check-in button that offers 2 different ways of coping with sensations of panic attacks. Depending on which you select, the app either provides a series of true facts about panic attacks (reassurance) or encourages you to accept and face the sensations (exposure). Exposure is an empirically validated treatment for panic disorders.
Information on anxiety, its effects, and theories on panic attacks.
There are 2 main coping tools. The first is the "Breathr" which help you practice deep breathing with visual, audio, and hepatic prompts. The other "Visualizer" offers guided body scans and soothing sounds (i.e. campfire and forest birds).
A simple mood journal with prompts of 3 things you have accomplished in the day.
Progress tracking such as panic attacks conquered and exercises completed.
You can input emergency contacts or crisis lines to call when in need of additional help.
Sanvello -- Free + Premium plan subscription (may be covered by insurance)
Best for: daily practice for overall mental health
Credibility: The app was developed with therapists, doctors and researchers
The main feature of the app are Guided Journeys, which are curated series of self-help learning tools including audio lessons and associated activities based on CBT and mindfulness. The paths are Feeling Better, Taking Control, Building Confidence, and Mindfulness. The app is designed for high engagement and daily practice, which may be too intensive for some users.
The app encourages you to check in daily and prompts you to answer 10 questions to assess how you're doing. The app then produces an Anxiety score, Stress score, and Depression score. You can view and track your assessments and other progress over time.
Guided meditations for different needs such as calming down, cultivating positivity and managing specific stressful situations (i.e., taking a flight).
CBT-based coping tools including journaling and thought records for challenging unhelpful thoughts.
Track your health habits, such as exercise, caffeine intake, and sleep.
Set goals you want to achieve and select daily challenges towards your goal.
Peer support through online discussion boards and live chat groups. Crisis hotlines in Canada, U.S. and other countries are also listed in the app.
Works well with therapy. The premium version allows you to share your progress on the app with members of your health care team.
Ability to access the app through your phone or computer.
Daylio -- Free + Premium plan subscriptions
Best for: if you just want to track your mood
Track your mood, activities, habits and goals, with the option to upload photos to entries. The app also allows you to add past entries retroactively.
Statistics with charts and graphs to show patterns in your mood over time with weekly, monthly, and yearly reports. You can also see activities that frequently occur with specific moods to track what affects your mood.
Export information in excel or PDF to share with others in your circle of care.
Headspace -- Free trial + Paid subscriptions
Best for: beginners to mindfulness and meditation
Credibility: created by Andy Puddicome, an author, public speaker, and teacher of mindfulness and meditation
Headspace was created for the general public and takes a practical and secular approach to mindfulness. The app is great for beginners who are interested in learning about mindfulness and to establish a regular routine for meditative practice.
Short "courses" of animated videos on topics such as acceptance, grieving, and managing anxiety. There are also teaching videos on techniques and common obstacles to meditation like motivation, boredom, and restlessness.
Large selection of one-off and curated series of guided meditations of varying length. Those caring for children may enjoy the kids series designated by age groups (under 5, 6-8, and 9-12).
A timer for guided, semi-guided, or unguided meditation for advanced practitioners.
Specific module for sleep that contains guided meditation, narrated stories, calming music, and ambient sounds.
Move module provides a variety of instructional workout videos incorporating mindfulness with physical exercise.
Focus module offers music, meditations, videos, and ambient sounds intended to enhance your focus.
Set meditation reminders and receive daily messages in the form of "mindful moments."
Invite friends to join in your practice and track each other's progress. You can also participate in virtual group meditations with other Headspace users.
Access contents from your phone or computer.
Waking up -- Free trial + Paid (and free by request) subscription
Best for: those who wants to get serious about meditation
Credibility: the app was created by Dr. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher, New York Times best-selling author and public speaker
The two tenants of the app are: meditative practice beyond stress reduction and grounding meditation in theories, practical wisdoms, and ethical insights. This app will appeal to those interested in the scholarship of mindfulness, how and why it works.
The practice module contains curated series of guided meditations such as the Introductory Course, Metta (loving-kindness), The Spectrum of Awareness, and The Stoic Path. These series are led by different renowned meditation teachers and philosophers. There is also a special series of meditation for children.
The theory module provides Lessons and Q&A on subjects such as the fundamentals of meditation, mind & emotions, and the illusory self. You can find under Conversations, interviews with a variety of experts including neuroscientists, philosophers, well known authors, clinical psychologists, researchers and professors.
A timer for unguided meditative practice.
Options to set and receive meditation reminders, mindful moments, and content recommendations.
Progress tracking, such as number of Mindful Days and total sessions completed.
If you truly cannot afford the subscription, you can request for a free account. You can also download and share individual pieces of content with others, regardless of whether they have the app themselves.
Insight Timer -- 99% Free content + Premium plan subscriptions
Best for: extensive library and strong online community
70,000 free guided meditations, 600 courses (for paid membership), and 2,000 talks available. The vast selection of free content is what sets this app apart from others, but it can also be overwhelming for those who are new to meditation. There are a few curated series in the Beginners Kits, such as Learning to Meditate, Coping with Anxiety, and Mindfulness at Work.
The contents are from diverse origins, including new age, religious, and secular. There are 9,000 content contributors, ranging from meditation teachers, musicians, to celebrities. You can choose to follow specific "teachers" and receive notification when they post new content (think of subscribing on Youtube.)
A number of live events daily, such as meditations, music performances, and yoga practices. Though the contents are free, you can donate to individual contributors.
You can also host and join group meditations through the app.
A timer for unguided meditative practice. You can select from a number of starting and ending bells, with options to add interval bells and ambient sounds.
Specific section for parents with meditations, courses, read-aloud stories, and calming music for children.
Large music library of various genres including instrumental, chanting and mantras, and nature sounds.
Access contents from your phone or computer.
Substance Use Apps
Saying When -- FREE
Best for: moderating alcohol use
Credibility: the app is designed by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), based on extensive research
Easily track your drinks and urges. When logging an urge, there are options to add who you were with, how you tried to cope, the success of your strategy, and feelings that triggered your urge to drink.
Set personalized goals of either abstaining or reducing alcohol use. You can set weekly and long-term goals and see your daily progress towards your goals.
Strategies for moderating alcohol consumptions, including dealing with urges, long-term strategies for maintaining your goal, and pacing tips. You can rate strategies and find them under a separate Coping tab to quickly access skills that worked for you.
View your drinking pattern, triggers, and the impact of your use in the Taking Stock feature.
Information about what is a standard drink and Canada's low-risk drinking guidelines. The app also provides a handy glossary of terms used throughout the app.
Plan ahead and mark in a calendar events that may trigger urges to drink over your desired amount and schedule strategies to help you stay on track.
Resources for additional support such as community treatment services and helplines.
Smoke Free -- Free + Premium plan subscriptions
Best for: quitting cigarette
Credibility: research demonstrating effectiveness
Track your progress with smoking cessation, including a counter of time you've been smoke free, cravings resisted, and money saved. The app also shows you various health improvements gained such as nicotine expelled from the body, circulation, and decreased risks of illnesses. You can also share your progress with others via email, texts, and other messaging services.
The app's gamification features include daily "missions" designed to help you resist cravings and achievement badges for progress made.
A diary to track and analyze your triggers to smoke. You can add details to entries such as severity of cravings, whether you smoked, how you were feeling, what you were doing, and people you were with. You can view graphical analyses of your triggers and even a map of where your cravings occurred to help you prepare for the next one.
Tips to manage cravings broken down into different categories such as activities, relaxation strategies, and mantras.
Create a wish list of things to buy with the money you saved from not smoking as an added motivational tool.
Options for additional support include an AI coach that will check in with you daily, group discussion on an array of quitting issues in the app's Stop Smoking Clinic, as well as personalized real time support with a stop smoking advisor.
Quit Genius -- Limited free features + Premium plan subscriptions
Best for: quitting cigarette or vape
Credibility: developed by medical doctors and well researched
Choose the target of quitting cigarettes or vaping. The program can be used in combination with nicotine replacement treatment.
Track progress towards personalized goals, including time to quit or time since quitting, money saved, and nicotine avoided. Similar to other smoking cessation apps, you can earn achievement badges for progress made. You can also share your progress with others via email, texts, and other messaging services.
What sets this app apart from others is the robust library of information. You can find resources on how to quit, and coping tools for cravings broken down into categories such as when you are stressed, when you need motivation, when cravings are strong, when you are bored, and when you need distraction
Diary where you can log your cravings, triggers, and use.
A real person Quit Coach you can chat with through the app.
Set money goals and things you are saving up for.
Slumber -- Free + Premium plan subscription
Best for: falling asleep
A vast library of calming stories, meditations, and soothing sounds. You can also add background effects to customize your experience.
A separate section of children stories.
Sleep Cycle -- Free + Premium plan subscription
Best for: tracking your sleep
Credibility: recommended by the American Sleep Association
The app uses the microphone from your phone to analyze sounds and track your movement while you sleep. You can set a wake-up phase (30 minutes by default) that corresponds with when you want to get up. The app then monitors your body signals to wake you during the lightest stages of sleep. There's also an option to add sleep aids (i.e. guided meditation) to help you fall asleep.
Intelligent snooze that lets you snooze until the end of your wake-up phase and atomically adjusts each snooze to wake you up gently. There's an option to add vibration if the alarm alone isn't enough.
Review how you slept in the automatically generated Sleep Journal. You can see your time in bed, time asleep, how long it took to fall asleep and sleep quality throughout the night.
Statistics on your sleep over time, as well as factors that increased and decreased your sleep quality (i.e., drank coffee, ate late, exercised).
An optional free sleep training program to learn more about sleep. The app will send you 14 emails, one each day.
Compatible with Apple watch.
If you or a loved one is in a mental health crisis, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for immediate assistance.
Crisis hotlines in the Greater Toronto Area:
Assaulted Women's Helpline: 416-863-0511
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
Distress Centres of Greater Toronto: 416-408-4357
Gerstein Centre: 416-929-5200
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Scarborough and East York Health Crisis Line: 416-495-2891