Finding Reliable Online Self-Help Programs

Finding Reliable Online Self-Help Programs

There are tens of thousands of online self-help programs and businesses with apps and websites that tout their DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to managing everything from addiction and depression to chronic pain and insomnia. A 2015 study found around 15,000 disease-specific health apps are available and one-third of those deal with mental health. Some are free and some charge a fee for their “courses.” For example, there’s Depression Cure Hypnosis ($39), Stop Symptoms of Adult, Teen or Youth Depression and Find Happiness.

Fortunately, some apps are medically reliable. Take the US Department of Defense’s creation: PTSD Coach. It’s a free smartphone app that lets anyone learn about PTSD, track his or her own symptoms and offers help developing coping skills, doing visualization exercises and setting up a support network of friends and family members. It’s been downloaded 150,000 times. In one small study, 80 percent of users said it provided help managing symptoms and finding solutions to their coping problems.

So, while we’re supportive of your impulse to take steps to improve your wellbeing—and there are definitely online sites and apps that you can use to upgrade your health—we want you to be aware that there’s a lot of unscientific, sometimes costly self-help being pushed to consumers. And it’s not always easy to tell the good from the bad.

Reliability and usefulness
You want to use programs that are based on well-researched medical facts, can do no harm and actually work.

An important new study has just come out that also can improve your chances of getting scientifically validated self-help programs online and through apps. In the Journal of Medical Internet Research, a team from the University of Michigan Medical School has put together a list of sites offering disease management advice that’s backed up by evidence from gold-standard studies. The sites address mental health issues such as depression and mood management, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, insomnia, pain, cardiovascular risks, childhood health issues and how to improve diet and physical activity levels. Their complete list is available here.

As for trying to figure out if a self-help site or app you come across is reliable, apply the REST criteria and you can rest assured: 

  • Research: Ask yourself, is the claim based on high-quality research. If the providers of the app or info don’t cite a published study in a recognized journal to back up their claims and approach, be skeptical.
  • Expert: Is the organization or individual offering the advice a credentialed expert? Self-proclaimed self-helpers are often more interested in their own fame than helping you.
  • Self-applicable: Ask yourself—“Is this advice really Self-applicable? Does it feel like it’s something that I should listen to?” Pay attention to your instincts.
  • Trust: How trustworthy does this advice seem? Are there grandiose claims for too-far-reaching effects? Is there a personality touting it who is over-hyped? This is your health, remember, not something for entertainment.

Even self-help needs a team
If you find a reliable self-help app or website and think it may make you feel better or improve your symptoms, remember, medical and emotional care is always better with a team approach. So, don’t self-diagnose. See your doctor. Find out what your health issues are. Learn about available treatments and how symptoms progress over time. Discuss what you can do on your own, using self-help apps or websites, and how to stay best connected to your doctor. Then you can safely take steps, every day, to upgrade your quality of life, manage your symptoms and attain a younger RealAge.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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