Mental well-being and technology seem like profoundly antagonistic terms. However, there are several apps and websites available to help you achieve mindfulness and practice meditation. Undoubtedly, technology has opened up new possibilities for mental health support via health data. Increasing dependency on mobile devices is providing new ways for the patients to access help; doctors to monitor patient progress; and researchers to find opportunities for mental health treatment.

To put it into simple terms, mobile mental health support apps will allow anyone with the ability to send a text message, to contact a crisis centre immediately. The new healthcare technologies can be packaged into mobile apps that use the device’s built-in sensors to collect precise information related to the user’s behaviour. Access to the sensors allows the app to trigger a signal for help whenever the user’s behaviour data patterns shows an anomaly. There are many types of mental health apps available in the market. Some help users to connect to a counsellor or mental health specialist, while others are stand-alone programs that promise to improve anxiety or other mental health-related issues.

Since Covid-19 hit the world, the demand for health tech has sharply increased. Healthcare institutions and health tech startups are jumping onto the new range of possibilities that comes along with the pandemic. These new opportunities have led to a burst of healthcare app development projects in several healthcare industry verticals including mental health. The Android and App Store are crowded with many mental health applications, and the number is growing every year. However, there is very little industry regulation and also information on the effectiveness on each app is limited, leading consumers to confusion about which app is trustworthy.

The need to care for our Emotional Health

As Dalai Lama wrote on his Twitter feed, “Scientists warn that constant fear and anger are bad for our health, while being compassionate and warm-hearted contributes to our physical and mental well-being. Therefore, just as we observe physical hygiene to stay well, we need to cultivate a kind of emotional hygiene too.” Dalai Lama’s statement has two crucial elements. 

First, people across the world are aware of the need for mental and physical health. The trend for a physically active lifestyle is soaring around the globe. One such app that we’ve recently deployed is DRT. Nevertheless, as per WHO, there is always a room for improvement as the reports indicate that 23% of the adult population and 81% of the school-going adolescents aren’t as active as expected. WHO suggests adults aged between 18-64 should indulge in at least 150 minutes of somewhat intense physical activity in a week. However, in recent years, people have started utilizing activity tracker devices to stay continuously aware of their physical activity and activity schedules.

Second, emotional health isn’t being prioritized nowadays. The busy culture is one of the key reasons behind our lack of time and attention for mental health care. Millions of communication channels are pouring information on us. We’re hungry for more and more data due to the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out); and we’re connecting with people on a variety of social networks. All of this, combined with the  time taken up by various meetings and to-do-lists, results in no time being left for mental health care maintenance.

The stress to achieve and the pressure to perform is constantly in the air for many in today’s society. Certainly, an unstable lifestyle comes with a price and for some, with the cost being mental health issues. In the USA, every one in five adults suffers from mental health issues (before you calculate, the number is 40 million). Whereas in Europe, 27% of the population is affected by mental disorders, counting to 83 million Europeans. As compared to the USA and Europe, the numbers are favourable for Asia, but not up to a decent degree as the prevalence of depression in Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, and China is 20%, 19.9%, 19.4%, 17.5%, and 16.5 respectively. 

Is the Cloud Technology Solution to our Quest for Mindfulness?

The numbers we just saw are terrifying and the worst part is that they are continuously growing. They indicate how crucial it is to combat mental health issues. Since technology itself is linked to mental health issues such as narcissism, distraction, the expectation of instant gratification, and even depression, the idea of technology coming to the rescue sounds bizarre at first glance.

But the help might come from the technology as the Dali Lama once tweeted that the modern tools of life aren’t necessarily our enemies. If used wisely, they can potentially be our helpers in the quest for mental wellbeing. Many technology companies working in the healthcare sector have developed mobile applications and devices that can potentially lead an individual’s path towards mental wellbeing.

Research based on analysis of Pitchbook data found that for the last six years, global funding in mental health tech investment has increased from €120 million in 2014 to €580 million in 2019. Whereas the investment in the UK has increased to €21 million 2019 from €350,000 in 2014.

Do the Mental Health Apps really help?

If yes, what advantages can technology possibly bring to the table that will improve mental health. Experts believe that technology has the potential to disrupt the healthcare industry, and the mental health vertical seems no different. Here are a few of the benefits that mobile care can bring:

  • Anonymity: Privacy is one of the prime issues people face while seeking mental health care. They want to seek ways to improve mental health without involving other people. 
  • Convenience: mobile health care allows patients to get treatment or advice anytime, anywhere. Such convenience is ideal for those who avoid mental health consultation due to not being comfortable with in-person appointments.
  • Generate awareness: mobile mental health apps can be the first step for many who aren’t much aware of this issue and were avoiding consulting a specialist due to inconvenience. Trying it via mobile apps will be more tempting.
  • Lower cost: Delivering mental health care via mobile apps reduces its cost. Some mental health apps even don’t charge a single penny to their users, they instead make money via advertisements.
  • Improved coverage: With remote accessibility, people who didn’t have access to mental health services nearby can leverage tech-powered cost-efficient care. Such positive effects of technology on mental health care can make the treatment affordable for everyone.
  • Fun to use: Technology makes many mental health use cases more appealing to people. This encourages people to adopt mental health care.
  • Available all the time: another effect of technology on mental health care is the 24*7 round the clock monitoring and intervention support.
  • Complement traditional therapy: the adoption of technology in traditional mental care helps therapies by extending personal sessions and reinforcing new skills.

Challenges with Mental Health Apps

Certainly, there are positive effects of technology on mental health care and this new era offers great opportunities, but there are some implementation challenges with mental health apps. Tackling problems even before they occur, ensure that your mental health apps address the needs of the community. The following are some of the challenges companies face whilst digitizing mental health care:

  • Measuring effectiveness: The biggest problem with tech intervention in mental health care is that there is no scientific evidence about whether the app will work as expected and cure the mental illness of an individual. Also, there aren’t any industry-wide standards that can help users know if mobile technology is effective.
  • Data privacy: Another concern is the safety and security of the sensitive information people share about their mental health conditions. The app developer needs to make sure that the app is compliant with industry standards.
  • Overselling: Many times when an app promises more than it delivers, users abandon the usage of such apps. The same is the case with mental health apps. Therefore, it is crucial for the app owner to spend time in researching the potential benefits of the app.

Types of trending Mental Health Apps

1. Self-Management Apps

Self-management apps require the user to manually put information within the app so that the app can react accordingly. For example, the app might require the user to set up medication reminders. Alternatively, the users can be asked to answer a set of questions to determine their level of stress, anxiety, or other similar mental issues. 

Some mobile apps make use of additional hardware that can track breathing patterns, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. This allows the users to keep track of their mental health improvements.

2. Skill-Training Apps

Unlike other mental health apps, skill-training apps feel more like games. They help users to learn new thinking and coping skills. These apps may incorporate videos about the importance of social support or some anxiety management videos. Often, the skill training apps have steps to get rid of or overcome mental health issues. After learning and watching some videos, the users might pick a strategy and try to apply them in the real world. The users can also use the app to track how often they practised those skills. A great example of a skill training app is MoodMission

Another app for brain training is Lumosity. Lumosity is designed by neuroscientists with a goal to boost attention, memory, problem-solving, flexibility, and speed. The therapists who believe strongly in this app say that one session a day on this app is adequate enough to improve mental skills.

3. Support Care

These apps provide additional support to the users by facilitating interaction with another human being. Interacting with a peer or a therapist will improve the therapy treatment, and will help the users to be more confident in the programs. Researchers are working hard to find out how much human interaction a person needs in order for an app-based mental health treatment to be effective.

4. The Future holds Passive Symptom Tracking Apps

There are efforts going into creating apps that can utilize the data collected by the smartphone’s in-built sensors. Modern smartphones are already equipped with sensors that can record behavioural movements, social interactions, vocal tone, and many more. Exposing such data may violate the privacy of the users, but compliances such as GDPR can ensure excellent data security. 

Capturing and understanding information like the vocal tone and social interaction of users can be the game-changer for mental health apps. Passive symptom tracking apps can utilize all this data to identify behaviour patterns before they occur. This may apply to problems that can cause mood episodes such as psychosis, depression, or mania.

The idea behind technology intervention in mental health care is not to replace mental health professionals. It is to alert caregivers when a client needs additional attention. The ultimate goal is to create an app for a range of users which aids people with serious mental illness.

5. Data Collection Apps

Without needing any manual input, data collection apps can gather the patient’s data. Receiving health information in bulk from thousands or millions of people at the same time will help researchers understand mental illness in a more enlightened manner. The researches can be used to develop better mental health care programs.

Evaluating the Mental Health Apps

There aren’t any widely accepted rules, checklists or review boards that can be helpful for users to identify the best mental health app. Initially, apps will have trouble getting peer-reviews as the process of mental health care is slow and it will require time to get such research done. Another concern is that even if the app creators wait for the peer-review results, the technology might be outdated before the research is completed.

However, if the mental health researchers, professionals, and app developers team up, it is possible to create mental health apps that can democratize mental health care. The consumers will be cautious before choosing any mobile app that offers mental health care. The app creators should obtain all the data security certifications and should craft care programs that are backed by successful research based on the partnership between technology and mental health care professionals.