A few apps on my phone now serve as a daily, subtle reminder of one of the worst nights of my life. The irony is, they were kind of meant to do the opposite.It started with a series of push notifications, first from the mental health app 7 Cups:“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
The apps’ constant chipper questions and reminders were mostly tone deaf and annoying, but occasionally they were comforting. As I processed the incident and my very small place in it, I blared free meditations on 7 Cups as company in motel rooms, campers, and my rental car. I kept logging my mental state on journaling apps Daylio, Pacifica, and Glow out of habit—even when I wasn’t ready to boot Talkspace back up, or talk to friends back home about the trip.
"I wound up feeling overwhelmed, underwhelmed, guilty about forgetting to open them."
But the way many of these apps let users determine our own “diagnosis” without oversight can make symptoms worse. Phones already enable avoidance of real-life problems for many of us, and the apps within are designed to hook us with digital dopamine hits of likes and comments, just like our social media platforms.I was in the middle of writing a sentence of this article when a notification from Daylio buzzed my phone. “How was your day?” it asked, like it does every day. I marked it “Meh” and closed the app, then opened Twitter. An hour after Daylio’s notification, one comes up for another mental health app, 7 Cups. It’s a catch-all app that offers chat services with “listeners,” a variety of guided meditations, and different options for engaging with a community of other users.The notification was a vapid quote about spreading my wings.It’s not just their tugging at my attention span that was ruining these apps for me. Many of them are shallow, providing pat answers to serious problems.The market is just so wild and untested, Magee said, that it’s hard for consumers to differentiate what works and what doesn’t.In some ways, trying to cope with depression and anxiety felt like scrambling through that panicked casino lobby. Everything around you is saccharine and beckoning, in vivid, manic color, but you just want to find the path that leads to fresh air and safety.It was a chaotic, terrifying situation, and one that thankfully most people won’t experience, and least of all need a specific app for. The apps didn’t help me cope during or after this exceptional edge-case scenario. No one designs digital diaries with mass shootings in mind, and I wouldn’t expect them to. But most self-help and therapy apps still require a lot of personal accountability on the user’s part—a burden I’m not sure someone seeking a hand out of the confusion should be expected to bear.For my own mental well-being, at least, I can’t wait to delete all of these apps. And maybe find a real-life therapist to talk to all of this about.
“How was your day?” it asked, like it does every day. I marked it “Meh” and closed the app, then opened Twitter.