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Digital Mental Health Apps: A Double Edged Sword

by Munira Electricwala


GIF includes a head silhouette with a smartphone showing messages being typed

Amidst rapid technological advancement and increasing mental health challenges, mental health apps have emerged as a popular avenue for mental healthcare. Deloitte Global reports that global spending on these apps was projected to reach nearly $500 million by the end of 2022, with a 20% annual growth rate in the data business. This growth, however, seems modest considering the significant expansion of mental health apps, which surged from $203 million in 2019 to $269 million in 2020, a 32% increase. Currently, there are over 20,000 apps dedicated to providing mental health services.

The expansion of the mental health app business has been nothing short of astounding. According to Statista, the Indian mental health market was worth around $1.1 billion in 2020 and was expected to increase at a CAGR of 21.9% from 2021 to 2028. Improved mental health awareness, reduced stigma, and access to telehealth services precipitated by the pandemic lead to greater demand mental health services. 


Have you used a mental health app?

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Accessibility and Affordability


The rise in mental health apps has led to greater accessibility and reduced costs for mental healthcare services. These apps offer easy access to support anytime, anywhere, eliminating geographical and time constraints. Research by Firth et al. (2017) shows that mental health apps can significantly reduce depression symptoms and improve treatment access for individuals who might not otherwise seek traditional psychotherapy.


While the proliferation of mental health apps has undoubtedly bolstered access to mental healthcare, the quality and effectiveness of these apps vary widely. There is significant variance in the use of evidence-based practices and adherence to ethical principles. Palmer & Burrows (2021) found that counsellors who integrated mental-health smartphone apps into their practice might inadvertently violate ethical codes, endangering their clients' safety. Torous et al. (2017) stress the importance of app evaluation and regulation, noting that only a small percentage of mental-health apps align with therapeutic recommendations. LiveMint has reported cases of predatory behaviour, such as connecting individuals with incompetent mental health professionals.


Integration with Traditional Mental Healthcare


The combination of mental health applications and traditional mental healthcare services is a hotly debated topic. Many mental health providers have embraced these tools, incorporating them into their treatment programmes to improve overall care. According to a 2021 survey by Fortney et al., both patients and clinicians reported higher engagement and satisfaction when using digital mental health tools in conjunction with traditional therapy.


Privacy and Ethical Concerns


Concerns regarding data privacy and ethics have emerged due to the rapid growth of mental health apps. Sharing sensitive mental health information on digital platforms can compromise user data, risking confidentiality. Kumar & Mehrotra (2017) found that only 40% of mental health apps included a privacy statement in their Terms and Conditions. To safeguard consumer privacy and security, regulations must be strengthened.


The expansion of mental health apps presents both opportunities and challenges for the mental health industry. While they enhance access to care, quality discrepancies and privacy issues remain. Collaboration between the healthcare industry and developers is crucial to ensure the effectiveness, safety, and ethical use of these apps amid ongoing research and legislation.


In conclusion, the ramifications of the growing ubiquity of mental health apps in the mental health industry are diverse, and their long-term influence on established therapy methods is still being studied. It is critical that players in the mental health sector, such as legislators, physicians, and app developers, work together to maximise possible benefits while limiting hazards. The shifting landscape of mental health applications will likely affect the future of mental healthcare and access, and we must continue to monitor, analyse, and adapt to this changing scenario.

 

Munira Electricwala is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs and postgraduate student of Clinical Psychology from Pune. She enjoys a good book on a gloomy, cold day and has an absurd affinity towards all things Freud (surprise, surprise) and the human brain. She aspires to carve herself a future in the Neuroscience community.

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