Some Doctors Recommend Digital Support for People With Mental Illness

New websites and smartphone apps are helping some people with mental illness.

When dealing with mental illness, no matter how severe, the best treatment always starts with talking to a professional, but for many reasons, that often doesn't happen until it's too late.

Now some doctors are suggesting that patients turn to their computers and phones -- instead of the doctor's couch -- to get the help they need.

"The vast majority of people who are living with mental disorders are not able to access psychiatric treatment,” said Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman of George Washington University Hospital. “So we are looking for different ways of providing the things we know work, so we can spread out more broadly."

Lieberman says people should start considering web-based therapy. It might not be as beneficial as seeing a professional, but it can help.

He recommends websites like, which helps people with bipolar disorder track their emotions.

The mobile app HeadSpace teaches a type of meditation called mindfulness, which studies have shown can help with anxiety and depression.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs developed PTSD Coach, an app to help people manage mental health symptoms that develop after trauma.

And the Drowzy sleep app for Android, developed by a board certified psychiatrist and a sleep medicine specialist, tracks your sleep the way specialists do.

"What we really need to see are primary care doctors prescribing these as they would prescribe medication,” Lieberman said. There just aren't enough mental health professionals, and really primary care doctors are on the forefront of making sure people get treated for the simpler kinds of mental illnesses."

He warned, though, that since these mobile apps have gotten so popular there are hundreds now available, but about 99 percent of them are not based on science. He recommends reading the descriptions carefully and only using those where a physician was involved in the development.

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