Mental health mobile apps - a promise or a fantasy | Tooploox

Weronika Szota

Jun 24, 2021 - 

5 min read - 

Mental health mobile apps – a promise or a fantasy

Mental Health App Market

2020 was hard. And a lot has changed because of it. What once was perceived as a very conventional area based on human and face-to-face interactions, because it involves the very personal issue of our own health, has now morphed into a digital experience – and a life-saving one at that. 

During the first quarter of 2020, health and fitness apps were downloaded 593 million times. We are getting accustomed to relying on mobile apps in matters of our health, well-being, and also, more and more often – in psychotherapy and mental health care. 

Mental Health App Market Size 

mHealth itself is a vast concept, encompassing a multitude of products and services for different types of users and needs. Conventional mental health care is also adapting to the changing world, resulting in apps that help to maintain good mental health and mental health software becoming one of the most promising online healthcare industries.  

The global mental health app market size accounted for US$ 586,9 million in 2018 and, with its expected growth rate of 23,7%, is estimated to generate a revenue of US$3,918.40 million by the end of 2027. 

Growing mental health awareness and the gradual destigmatization of mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, is definitely a factor here. On the other hand, in certain cultures or parts of society, mental health is still considered taboo, due to which many people can experience fear related to mental treatments and in visiting a psychiatrist or therapist. 

This, combined with the increasing penetration of mobile devices and IoT connectivity, can also be a reason behind the growing use of mental health care apps.  

But the reasons for the popularity of mental health support apps are not only global. Some are very specific and personal, such as those leveraging VR therapy. For example, some particular mental health conditions, like OCD or phobias which require a specific approach, like exposure, can be successfully treated with the use of virtual reality technology. 

There are plenty of VR mental health apps being used to effectively treat various mental health conditions. And this is reflected in the mental health app market size, as well as in startups and the VC ecosystem, where virtual reality healthcare startups are beginning to get hits. 

What kind of care do mental health apps provide?

Depending on the content the mental health apps provide, most of them focus on a single health-related functionality. This seems understandable, given the fact that mental health is at least as complex an area as the physical. 

Today people seeking mental health support apps have a choice between three categories of these mobile products:

  • apps that offer therapy interventions for specific mental disorders or conditions such as depression, anxiety, autism, and others. These are often used as a part of the larger clinical care program accompanied by a mental health professional’s guidance. Example: Molehill Mountain 
  • apps that provide mindfulness training and meditation practices to increase focus, calm, and general mental well-being. Example: Headspace 
  • apps that function more like a platform for authorized mental health therapists to conduct online therapy sessions with clients and which could be used by individuals and, for example, whole organizations, as well. Example: Mindgram

All of the app types listed above differ in use. Some of them offer mood and symptom monitoring, some provide exercises and lessons, others target major psychiatric illnesses and therapeutic modalities. What they do all have in common, though, is that it’s really hard to tell whether they are, in fact, effective. 

The only way to evaluate the effectiveness and quality of mental health apps is to rely on their user ratings and marketing descriptions on the app store. When it comes to matters as important as mental wellbeing, users should be provided with a rating that will help them distinguish a useful, safe, and effective mental health support app from an unhelpful, dangerous, and at least ineffective one.

That is why the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is working on developing such an app rating system, which would provide assessment guidelines for the efficacy and risks of mental health apps. The parameters of this system can be also particularly useful for mobile app development companies, to help them build meaningful products that will stand out on the market and won’t be deleted after the first use. 

Mental health app development – what to pay attention to 

The comprehensive app evaluation model designed by APA might as well be called a comprehensive guide for mental health app development because the parameters established in the model should definitely be taken into consideration by developers, as all of the listed issues are important for the end-users. And things important for users are the criteria that will help them choose the best mental health app for them. 

Therefore – they’re worth paying attention to. So, what are the directions for mental health app development and improvement? 

Privacy & Safety 

Managing data in healthcare is a big challenge, especially since Electronic Health Record (EHR) proliferation. At the same time, it is still difficult for many people to overcome the stigma of receiving mental health help and support. That is why the privacy of such sensitive information is a matter of great concern and importance for the users. 

It seems like people are entitled to their worry, as a study from the BMJ Publishing Group Limited (March 2019) showed that 19 out of 24 of the most popular health apps in the Google Play marketplace transmit their users’ data to at least one third-party recipient.

How to tackle this?

If a mental health app is sharing some data with third parties, this fact must be disclosed to the users. Moreover, it should be disclosed using plain and simple language, revealing what data is collected, how it is stored, what is being shared, and what it’s being used for. 

Scientific Proof

Some mental health support apps have benefits that have been well documented in clinical studies, but most of them still haven’t. Moreover, according to a study by Nature Digital Medicine, 64% of studied mental health apps claim effectiveness with nothing supporting these claims but scientific language (44%). None of them provided any proof like certification or documentation of the accreditation process. 

How to tackle this?

Users are looking for scientifically proven information. Accreditation processes, scientifically proven frameworks, and app libraries will add credibility and true value to a mental health app. It’s important to provide the product with high-level evidence in order to stay relevant on the market. 

User Experience

mHealth apps are not known for their flawless and user-friendly designs. At least not yet. There are some particular things that should be considered while designing ANY healthcare app, but with a mental health app, significant importance is placed on usability and simplicity. 

People in a mental crisis or who are dealing with any kind of distress, in particular, should not have to put any additional effort into comprehending how the app that is supposed to help them works. 

How to tackle this?

The solution might sound very vague and general, but it really  doesn’t come to more than simply this: the most important thing is the “ease of use.” Understood as the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system to be free of effort. A mental health app should be as intuitive and as user-centric as possible. It doesn’t get simpler than that. 

Interoperability 

As mentioned above, the issue of data management in healthcare software is a delicate matter. User data in mental health apps will be always perceived as “sensitive” and should be regulated with certain restrictions on its processing, storage, and sharing. 

How to tackle this?

In dealing with sensitive health-related user data, transferring to healthcare service providers might be an answer. If the data is regularly sent to a Regional Healthcare System, the security standards of our mental health app should be integrated into the existing and legitimate infrastructure. The transfer of such data will have to meet relevant data transfer standards and be translated into a Clinical Data Architecture (CDA) file. 

Wrapping Up 

The prospects of the mental health app market seem exciting. But in order to provide a valuable mental health support app that will meet very specific user expectations and win its market share, it’s definitely wise to seek a vendor with expertise in delivering complex healthcare products. 

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