Mental health apps can promote resiliency for our first responders and military: UAlberta study

Amid COVID-19, occupational therapist provides five tips for finding the best online mental health tools

Amanda Anderson - 18 March 2020

Now, more than ever, we need online tools to build resilience and wellness. Mobile health apps can be a vital tool for military members and first responders seeking mental health support, according to new University of Alberta research.

"These apps should not be seen as a way to replace clinician-based mental health interventions, but they can be a great starting point for those who aren't comfortable seeking in-person support right away," said occupational therapist and study co-author Kaitlin O'Toole.

The mobile health apps, such as Mindfulness Coach and LifeAmor, which O'Toole also refers to as resilience apps, give users a sense of what mental health interventions look like, and may reduce the stigma related to mental illness.

"[By using the apps] people become more familiar with mental health concepts and interventions," she explained. "They practise breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and other techniques that can be used in everyday life-during activities like yoga or stretching after exercise. Their view of mental health support starts to become more normalized."

O'Toole, a recent U of A graduate who worked on the study with occupational therapy professor Cary Brown in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, said the apps are useful for military members and first responders because they may not have access to professional mental health services due to deployment, time constraints and social barriers.

"These online options offer exciting new ways to provide therapy for these populations, especially since they have such differing occupational stressors. We often hear about physical ailments related to the job, but mental health issues are starting to become more prevalent-they need to be addressed."

O'Toole offered the following tips for finding reliable mental health apps:

  • Pay attention to reviews of apps. Recommendations can go a long way when they come from others who might be in a similar situation.
  • Look for apps that include deep or diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness strategies, visualization techniques, and progressive muscle relaxation and sleep strategies.
  • Seek out apps that provide ways to practise mental health strategies and techniques. These can take time to be effective, so it's important to make sure you're following the proper directions.
  • Check the app's developer to make sure it was created by a reputable source, such as a government veteran affairs agency. Reliable apps should be researched and tested carefully for effectiveness.
  • Look for features that make you feel most comfortable. Many of the available apps use the same general concepts but can present their information in different ways. If you're a visual learner, choose the app with more diagrams and videos. If you learn by reading, pick the app with more text.

"You are the one who is using the app, so it's important to pick one that feels comfortable and will be the most useful for your own specific mental health needs," said O'Toole.

"Although these apps are usually geared more toward promoting resilience in military members and first responders, they can absolutely be useful to anyone looking for online mental health strategies."

Resilience apps that met the study's inclusion criteria include: AIMS for Anger Management, Breathe2Relax, Concussion Coach, DoD Safe Helpline, HighRes, LifeAmor, Mindfulness Coach, Mood Coach, Moving Forward, PTSD Coach, PTSD Family Coach and Tactical Breather.

All apps can be found in the app stores for Android and Apple smartphones.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) all offer ways of getting help if you or someone you know may be suffering from mental health issues.