What to Know About Apps for Mental Well-Being

Learning About Mental Well-Being Digital Applications

This article is for anyone who's interested in learning about digital applications -- or "apps" -- designed to help support mental well-being. The goal of this activity is to help you talk to and work with your doctor and healthcare team about the use of health and wellness apps as part of your mental well-being and overall care.

You will learn about:

  • Your mental well-being as part of your overall health

  • Supporting your mental well-being

  • What a digital application, or app, is  

  • What the FDA does and doesn't regulate when it comes to apps

  • Talking to your doctor and healthcare team about health and wellness apps

Test Your Knowledge

What Is "Mental Health?"

Taking care of your mental well-being is important, but just what is "mental health?" While there's no one definition, for most people their mental health means their state of mind and their emotions.

Your mental health is a key part of your overall health and includes your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how you think, feel, and act and can impact your day-to-day life, relationships, choices you make, and how you deal with stress.

Your Mental Well-Being and Your Health

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and can greatly impact it. For example, people who are living with depression can have a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. And living with a chronic (long-term) physical health condition can often increase your risk for a mental well-being condition.

Your mental well-being can also change over time. Throughout your life, your experiences while growing up, with school and work, in relationships, during hardships, and as you get older can all impact your mental well-being in different ways.

Dr Nina Vasan -- a psychiatrist who specializes in digital mental health -- talks about taking care of your mental well-being.

Supporting Your Mental Well-Being

Taking care of your mental well-being is important, and talking to your doctor or a healthcare team member can be a good first step.

They can recommend lifestyle changes or tips to help support your mental well-being and can work with you to develop a plan tailored to fit your individual needs. They may also recommend treatments such as therapy or counseling, medicines, digital treatments, or devices to help support your mental well-being.

What's an App?

A digital application -- or an "app," for short -- is a software program (set of instructions) used by a computing device to perform a task. Mobile apps are apps specifically designed to be used by mobile wireless computing devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and wearable devices like smartwatches.

There are thousands of apps available to help with your health, and different apps are designed for different conditions. Some that are designed to support mental well-being include apps to help with anxiety, stress, sleep, and daily functioning.

Not All Apps Are the Same

Anyone who can create a computer program can create and release an app to the public for use. So before using an app for your health, it's important to know if it's been evaluated for safety and efficacy (how well it works).

The US Food and Drug Administration -- the FDA -- has created a process to review healthcare apps for use. The FDA is the US agency that makes sure medicines and medical devices are safe and effective before they are allowed to be used by the public.

What the FDA Regulates

When it comes to apps, the FDA regulates those called mobile medical apps (MMAs) that function as medical devices.

An MMA is considered a medical device by the FDA if it's used for a disease or health condition in any of the following ways:

  • Prevention

  • Detection (finding)

  • Treatment

  • Mitigation (decreasing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness)

  • Cure

The FDA holds MMAs to similar safety and efficacy standards as prescription medicines and other medical devices.

What the FDA Doesn't Regulate

It's important to know that the FDA does not regulate all apps designed for healthcare. For example, they don't regulate those that just provide healthcare education, or apps that work to help manage a condition but don't give a specific treatment suggestion.

There are several apps and MMAs designed to help manage health and wellness, such as those that track your diet or your child's developmental milestones. There are even apps designed to help doctors care for their patients.

Knowing if an MMA has been approved or cleared by the FDA can be an important factor when deciding if an app may be a part of your healthcare.

What Approval and Clearance Mean

The FDA encourages the development of MMAs that improve healthcare and provide healthcare professionals and consumers (the public) with valuable health information.

Like other medical devices, MMAs are carefully reviewed by the FDA for the specific health need or condition and the group of people they were developed for. The FDA can then allow them for use by giving an approval or a clearance:

  • Approval means it provides enough benefits to outweigh any known and potential risks. So it's "approved" for use

  • Clearance means it has been shown to be reasonably safe and effective for its intended use. So it's "cleared" for use (instead of approved)

Talking to Your Doctor and Healthcare Team

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team member about whether using an app may be a good fit for you to help support your mental well-being.

Having open and honest communication with them is key. They can also talk to you about if an evaluation for a health condition may be recommended and any next steps.

No app can replace proper care and treatment by your healthcare team. But certain ones may be recommended as part of your treatment plan to help provide additional support for your mental well-being.

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View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Mental Health

About Mental Health

Emotional Well-Being

Mental Health Quiz

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

Device Software Functions Including Mobile Medical Applications -- FDA

How Do You Know What Devices Are FDA Approved?

Authors and Disclosures


Nina Vasan, MD, MBA

Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Executive Director of Brainstorm
The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation
Stanford University School of Medicine
Palo Alto, California

Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, has no relevant financial relationships.

Clinician Reviewer

Karen Badal, MD, MPH

Senior Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Karen Badal, MD, MPH, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


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