Article Digital Health

Mental Health Apps: realising the latent potential in cognitive behavioural therapy

Categories: Digital Health
Posted 01 July 2021

Advancements in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are allowing mobile health (mHealth) apps to digitise traditional therapies onto web-based platforms. Monitoring day to day phenomena and making educated recommendations is key to managing mental wellbeing, both in the treatment of mental illness and combating stress and low mood in the wider community.  

Apps like Calm and Headspace are well established, supported by a legion of lesser-known iterations aiming to treat mental illnesses. While some debate exists around the effectiveness of these apps, clinical studies have shown remotely administered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to be as, if not more, effective in treating low-moderate severity depression and anxiety.  

Restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have catalysed the uptake of mHealth platforms, and with such powerful therapeutic potential in a field often short on resources, we ask the question; what role will mobile apps play in the future of mental health management?  

Read on as we discuss the future potential of mental health apps concerning CBT.  

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 


CBT is an evidence-based branch of psychotherapy aiming to reframe and restructure negative thought processes that may be detrimental to mental wellbeing. It is a proven, highly effective treatment in combating depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders, addictions, bipolar disorder, stress and low mood. Through talking, journaling and reflecting on previous thoughts and behaviours, patients can connect these processes with their emotional wellbeing. Identifying and avoiding negative patterns results in alleviated symptoms of mental distress.  

Traditionally practised face to face, CBT is hindered by increasingly underfunded mental health services, limited accessibility in rural communities and unaffordability of private practitioners. This opens the door for cost-effective digital solutions to bridge the gap, providing on-demand service for patients, when and wherever they need it. 

Due to the stigma often surrounding mental health, apps that allow journaling and reflection with a calming user experience, in an anonymous, comfortable surrounding devoid of invasive human interaction, may be more acceptable to and convenient for patients than traditional in-person therapy. Naturally, some circumstances will require human interaction to evaluate a specific situation, but much of the CBT ‘legwork’ could be effectively conducted digitally.  

Current Challenges for CBT Apps 

Although the use of mobile apps to treat mental illness is gaining traction, they have yet to be internally adopted by mental health charities and medical bodies, who refer patients to third party apps rather than providing their own. This may in part be due to the relative infancy of the development of mental health apps, and a lack of peer-reviewed research validating their long-term efficacy.  

Not to suggest that the apps do not work, but case studies demonstrating the capabilities of CBT apps are often conducted by stakeholders and affiliates of the app in question. This approach to evaluation may be partially due to independent research delaying the route to market in a profit-driven landscape, particularly where it may not be necessary to compete.  

Take Catch It, for example – an NHS recommended mental health app aimed at treating feelings of depression and anxiety through CBT. Mental health app review guide One Mind notes that data examined from 285 consenting users of Catch It showed an overall positive response, however, the efficacy of Catch It has not been verified by an independent randomized controlled trial (RCT).  

Aside from limited research, challenges facing mental health apps include inconsistent levels of engagement, poor user experience and unregulated quality of service. We believe that an opportunity exists to synergise the growing bank of clinical studies, with an engagement centric, user-optimised interface to create a universally adaptable app framework.  

What does the future hold? 

The scientific community’s agreement about digital CBT’s ability to treat low severity mental illness has massive implications. If mild depression and anxiety can be tackled effectively through a digital platform at a population level, not only would that free up the limited resources of healthcare professionals to treat acute illness, but it could tackle mental illness early to prevent development into more serious problems.  

There is a global dearth of psychiatrists, and an effective, gold standard CBT application could potentially alleviate real pressure in an under-funded healthcare system. Furthermore, with a stigma still existing around mental health, particularly in males, a private and anonymous app enabling individuals to manage mental distress before developing mental illness would be invaluable.  

Mobile apps have a huge potential to become commonplace vehicles for remote CBT administration. Applications incorporating clinical studies with gamification, alerts and engagement features could be adopted as medically viable for use by official bodies and charities alike. If promoted to the wider public as an option to privately tackle early-onset mental ill-health, the knock-on effect on reducing severe cases while improving health services’ ability to treat them could be enormous.  

Here at Waracle, we work with industry specialists to provide digital health solutions that enhance quality of life. Get in touch with one of our experts today, and find out how a mental health application could be the next step to improving your patients’ quality of care.