FE Mental Health Series | How apps are changing consultation landscape amid drought of experts in India – Healthcare News

In recent years, there have been tremendous advancements in the healthcare industry. From telemedicine to wearable sensors, these developments have played a crucial role in prompt medical intervention and improved patient outcomes. But what has been the impact on the segment of mental health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that one in eight people in the world lives with a mental disorder. It’s estimated that one in three women and one in five men will experience major depression in their lives. Although other conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are less common but still have a large impact on people’s lives.

Over the years, more and more people are now willing to address mental health issues. However, major challenges like accessibility and affordability of mental health facilities, stigma, and shortage of mental health professionals among others are concerning. Can technological trends like mental health apps improve the status?

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According to experts, mobile devices like cell phones, smartphones, and tablets are giving the public, healthcare providers, and researchers new ways to access help, monitor progress, and increase understanding of mental well-being. But how effective it is for the people?

Mental Health Apps in India: What is the current scenario?

The current state of mental health in India is concerning. According to recent surveys, every one out of five people suffer from mental health problems and this has been further amplified over the last two years after the pandemic.

“Mental health issues are still heavily stigmatized in Indian society, leading to discrimination and reluctance to seek help. This stigma is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs, misconceptions, and lack of awareness,” Richa Singh- CoFounder and CEO of YourDOST told Financial Express.com.

Singh also revealed that affordability continues to pose a challenge in India.

“A minimum 5-6 sessions are required for anyone to get the real benefits of counseling. With an average cost of 1500-2000 per session, a lot of people might not be able to afford the same. There is a general lack of awareness and understanding about mental health issues among the public, which contributes to the stigma and delays in seeking treatment,” she said.

Moreover, the scarcity of qualified mental health professionals, especially in rural and remote areas, leaves millions without the support they need.

The American Psychiatric Association maintains that there are more than 10,000 mental or behavioral health apps publicly available. However, there is little available information on the quality and effectiveness of the apps. Meanwhile, industry leaders claim that these apps offer tools and resources for managing stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as promoting mental well-being. Typical features include pre-recorded meditation sessions, breathing exercises, and more.

There is also a rise of mental health startups and it is also getting the attention of the investors. More than 200 investors have invested in such firms in just the last three years, with startups such as Amaha, Wysa, Trijog and Lissun raising $25.4 million, of the total $42.7 million which has flowed into the sector so far, data from Tracxn shows. There are 456 such startups in the country.

According to Neeraj Kumar, Founder & CEO, PeakMind, from online therapy platforms to counseling services, mental health awareness and education initiatives, mindfulness and meditation apps, to AI-driven mental health tools, these startups are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to provide comprehensive support.

In 2021, official data revealed that 1.64 lakh individuals in India died by suicide, with a national suicide rate of approximately 12 per lakh of the population, underscoring the gravity of mental health challenges in the country.

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The pandemic fundamentally altered perceptions of mental wellness, prompting even those who previously viewed it as taboo to take it seriously.

“The surge in demand for mental health services coincided with a shift towards digital platforms, leading to the proliferation of mental health startups and AI-driven applications. This trend also underscored the commercial viability of addressing mental health needs, attracting entrepreneurs seeking to combine profit with social impact,” Vidit Bahri, Chief Growth Officer, Sukoon Health told Financial Express.com.

While the market opportunity is substantial, mental health startups have adopted diverse go-to-market strategies and product propositions.

Bahri explained that many of these startups gained prominence during the pandemic, leveraging hybrid approaches to raise awareness and engage audiences without compromising on outcomes.

“In the tech sector, AI is a prominent buzzword, but its application in mental wellness primarily revolves around content generation for self-help models. However, expert-led intervention remains irreplaceable,” he said.

‘Access and Affordability is the priority’

Bahri maintains that mental health startups prioritise access and affordability by offering solutions like online therapy platforms and telemedicine services, aiming to improve accessibility for those grappling with mental health issues.

Collaboration is another cornerstone as an approach, as mental health startups work with stakeholders including healthcare providers, employers, schools, and community organizations to integrate mental health services into existing systems.

“This collaborative effort ensures holistic and comprehensive care for individuals struggling with mental health issues. The impact has been significant, expanding access to mental health services, particularly in underserved areas, and overcoming geographical and financial barriers. Moreover, mental health startups’ efforts in raising awareness have contributed to reducing stigma and fostering open conversations about mental health in society,” he added.

According to Ritu Mehrotra, Founder & CEO, United We Care – Mental Wellness App, while awareness is rising and policy changes are happening, there are significant challenges.

“The biggest hurdles are a huge shortage of mental health professionals we only have 0.7 per lakh a population and the lingering stigma surrounding seeking help. Costs can also be prohibitive. Unless we work towards increasing the number of qualified professionals, leverage technology like telehealth and AI tools like ours, and prioritize destigmatizing mental health through education and open dialogue we will never be able to address the problem fully,” Mehrotra told Financial Express.com.

She also said that apps like United We Care can help with scaling access through self help tools, AI virtual wellness coach like Stella for providing Psychological First Aid, Providing self management tools through it’s 24/7 support system, Breaking barriers and offering personalized support by charting individualistic wellness journeys and hand holding them at every step of the way.

“Are Apps a replacement for therapy? Absolutely not but they are supportive tools which can not just reduce the burden of therapists and also provide 24/7 support to patient when in dire need,” she added.

Meanwhile, Aanandita Vaghani, Founder and Mental Health Therapist, UnFix Your Feelings maintains that expanding mental healthcare through online therapy platforms and mobile apps offers a promising solution to geographical barriers, especially in remote areas where access to traditional services is limited.

“Startups in this sector frequently utilize subscription-based or freemium models, making therapy more affordable compared to in-person sessions. The convenience and privacy of online platforms can empower individuals who may hesitate to seek assistance through traditional channels. Additionally, these startups incorporate innovative features like chatbots, initial assessments, and self- help tools. These resources not only enable early identification of mental health concerns but also serve as gateways for users to seek professional help when needed,” Vaghani told Financial Express.com. She also said that in India, mental health apps and startups are playing a crucial role in addressing the issue of costly therapies by offering accessible and affordable alternatives.

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However, a significant challenge arises from the subsidized prices offered by many startups, leading to a scarcity of well-qualified therapists to meet the demands of the price-sensitive market, she informed.

“Qualified therapists require extensive education, ongoing supervision, and training, which can be costly. Furthermore, the absence of mental health coverage by insurance complicates the situation further,” she added.

Can mental health apps address the mental health professional shortage issue?

In India, the shortage of mental health professionals continues to pose a challenge. Bahri emphasises that mental health apps can be the solution to the gap between the increase in the need for mental health services and the limited number of mental health clinics.

This can be a great advantage for those who live in isolated areas or are maybe afraid because of the stigma, he maintained.

“Apps cannot, in a way, be substituted for in-person therapy, but they can be a useful first step towards the betterment of mental health and, therefore, the right people can get mental health services,” he highlighted.

According to Vaghani, India can harness the potential of mental health apps to mitigate the scarcity of mental health professionals in several ways.

“Firstly, these apps can offer teletherapy services, enabling users to engage in one-on-one therapy sessions with licensed therapists and counselors via video calls, phone calls, or text messaging. This facilitates access to professional support irrespective of geographical constraints. Additionally, mental health apps can establish peer support networks, connecting individuals facing similar challenges or experiences to provide mutual assistance and encouragement,” she told Financial Express.com.

While not a substitute for professional therapy, peer support networks can complement traditional mental health services and alleviate the burden on mental health professionals, she informed.

“These apps can furnish users with a plethora of self-help resources, encompassing guided meditation, stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tools. By equipping users with these resources, mental health apps empower individuals to actively manage their mental well-being and cultivate resilience,” she explained.

AI vs Human: Who can take better care of mental health?

Mental health apps are indeed useful, however, it is necessary to recognize their drawbacks, Bahri explained.

“Apps cannot imitate the empathy and human connection which is given by a qualified therapist. Their answers are pre-programmed and thus they probably will not be able to deal with the details of the situation. Moreover, apps need a certain degree of self-awareness and motivation which might be absent for a person who is suffering from mental health problems. If you believe that the personalised approach and the intensive support provided by a mental health facility are better than other methods of availing help, then opting for professional help is a good choice,” he told Financial Express.com.

Meanwhile, Singh maintained that with the rise of AI, chatbots and assessments that offer recommendations based on the end user’s requirement.

“However, there is a possibility that they might not be able to offer a completely accurate recommendation, which won’t help for severe cases,” she told Financial Express.com.

On the contrary, Mehrotra maintains that these apps can be empathetic but “human connection is irreplaceable”.

“Mental health apps can offer 24/7 support, personalized exercises, and guidance that fits your mood. Imagine calming techniques at 3 am, or CBT modules tailored to your needs. Of course the human connection is irreplaceable but when someone requires help at 4am then it is these tools like our AI virtual wellness coach, Stella, who can pull you out during those difficult times. Our focus always is on empowering users, not creating dependence, and always encourage seeking professional help when needed,” she told Financial Express.com.

Mental health apps are a powerful tool, but best alongside professional care. They bridge the gap and offer constant, personalized support in a country like India, where access to therapists is limited, she pointed out.

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Furthermore, Vaghani maintained that mental health apps have the potential to provide a certain level of empathy and support, but they cannot fully replicate the nuanced understanding and genuine empathy that human interaction offers.

“While some apps utilize chatbots and AI-driven features to offer supportive responses and guidance, these interactions may lack the depth and authenticity of human empathy. Several disadvantages are associated with mental health apps. Firstly, they often lack personalization, providing generalized support and resources that may not effectively address the unique needs and circumstances of individual users,” she told Financial Express.com.

Additionally, while these apps can offer valuable self-help resources and tools, they may not be equipped to handle complex mental health issues or provide personalized therapy tailored to specific diagnoses, she pointed out.

She also said that many users may have concerns regarding the privacy and security of their personal data when using mental health apps, especially when sharing sensitive information about their mental health. The potential for misuse or unauthorized access to this data can pose significant privacy risks for users.

“Despite these disadvantages, mental health apps can still be valuable tools for promoting mental well-being, offering accessibility and convenience to users seeking support. However, it’s essential for users to approach these apps with caution and supplement their use with support from qualified mental health professionals when necessary,” she told Financial Express.com.

What more needs to be done?

With only 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 patients, the sector grapples with severe understaffing, while the World Health Organization predicts staggering economic losses of approximately $1.03 trillion globally due to mental health conditions by 2030.

There is nothing in the world that isn’t faced with challenges and our job as innovators is to find solutions to that, Mehrotra said.

“Mental health apps in India too face some hurdles. The therapist shortage means apps need to focus on self-management tools and educational resources. The digital divide and stigma require creative solutions like partnerships for affordable data or collaborating with influencers to normalize app use,” she told Financial Express.com.

Data security is paramount, so robust protocols and user education are crucial, she said.

“Apps can’t replace therapists, but by working within the healthcare ecosystem, they can bridge the gap and empower individuals in a country with limited access to care,” she highlighted.

Meanwhile, Vaghani highlighted that as a nation, it’s imperative that we confront these hurdles, normalise discussions around mental health, and ensure that therapy is readily accessible to those in dire need.

She also said that to address concerns regarding the quality of information and therapists available on apps, it’s crucial to implement pathways within mental health apps that enable users to smoothly transition to professional care when necessary for complex mental health needs.

“Moreover, there should be a reorientation of the perception surrounding mental health apps. Rather than being seen as substitutes for therapy, these platforms should be viewed as tools primarily focused on self-help and meditation, serving as valuable complements to traditional mental health care,” she told Financial Express.com.

DISCLAIMER: If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health or in distress contact the Vandrevala Foundation’s helpline (+91-9999666555) which is available in 11 languages including English and can be accessed via telephone or WhatsApp 24×7. You can also contact Fortis Hospital’s National Helpline number 91-8376804102 which is available 24×7. You can also contact the Government Mental Health Rehabilitation Helpline ‘KIRAN’ at 18005990019 which is available 24×7.

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