Over the last few years, digital mental health tools have seen a steady rise. The COVID-19 pandemic saw significant growth in digital health solutions. By definition, digital mental health is understood as any application of digital health technology for mental health assessment, support, prevention, and treatment. This includes teletherapy, video conferencing, and mobile applications that provide support and assistance for mental healthcare.
During the pandemic, in particular, there was an increased reliance on these services for mental and emotional health support. Evidence suggests that the digital mental health solutions space boomed during the pandemic and continues to do so, accelerating its user base and technological developments.
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Understanding digital mental health
Digital mental health is often used as an umbrella term to include any mental health service which is delivered virtually. The space of digital mental health care has always been full of possibilities, growing with technological progress and adapting to the needs of society. The most remarkable shift in the digital mental health space came with access to personal technological devices. With the ubiquity of personal devices and the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), mental health apps have come to the fore and continue to rise. The types of mental health apps vary, with some focusing on evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), others allowing individuals to connect with professionals virtually, and some providing AI-supported tools to manage emotional distress.
At the moment, there are over 10,000 mental health apps providing different mental health services, ranging from AI chatbots and instant crisis text messaging to gamified versions of CBT. However, many apps are largely unregulated. It is thus essential to pay attention to certain aspects of the app to ensure efficacy and safety. Some of these important features include being evidence-based, having a strong clinical foundation and implementing the necessary security and privacy regulations.
Mental health apps continue to evolve, with their possibilities expanding as more investment is directed towards this sector.
Digital mental health after the COVID-19 pandemic
The onset of the pandemic and its impact on traditional health systems hastened the growth of telehealth. The existing health infrastructure was unable to meet the increasing physical and mental health needs, establishing the necessity of a good digital health infrastructure. Within this, digital mental health received attention in light of rising global distress, anxiety and shared grief. Several digital mental health companies rose to the occasion and allowed individuals to access much-needed care.
With the recognition of this gap in the system, there was a shift in the investment landscape. Financial investment is usually a good indicator of the potential growth that a sector might hold. The same is true of digital mental health. Before the pandemic, digital mental health accounted for a steady but small percentage of global health funding. This shifted rapidly as the health crisis tightened its grip across the world.
Investment trends in digital mental health
- Investment in digital mental health before 2020 was increasing steadily, with gradual changes in the average investment size as well.
- The onset of the pandemic accelerated this trend, with mental health companies receiving record-high funding in the first quarter of 2020. By the end of 2020, the funding had multiplied manifold and held great promise.
- Along with corporate investment, government funding in digital mental healthcare was noteworthy. The United Kingdom, Canada and India are among the many countries to have invested in these initiatives, emphasising the value of digital mental health development and its potential for the future.
- Investment peaked in 2021, being nearly double 2020’s total funding, and was focused on integrating mental health services into broader healthcare platforms. Following the rapid rise, investment slowed and eventually steadied in 2022, and is headed towards a more sustainable investment rate.
- While the majority of funding was focused on organisations based in the United States, Asian countries also witnessed a notable rise. Wysa is one such AI-powered digital mental health solution, which has an emotionally intelligent chatbot that guides users to evidence-based self-help tools and resources and connects them to qualified emotional well-being professionals. Founded in India, Wysa has 5 million users in 65 countries and raised $20 million in 2022.
The investment trajectory thus suggests that the digital mental health sector is rapidly growing, evolving and engaging people across the globe. It is thus important to understand why this is happening, given the vital role these services play in the mental health service landscape today.
5 reasons why digital mental health solutions are on the rise
1. Growing mental health crisis
Across the globe, the pandemic significantly accentuated mental health concerns. In 2022, WHO data indicated a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide, due to several pandemic-related factors like social isolation, loneliness, fear of infection, grief and bereavement, and financial worries. There was clearly a growing mental health crisis across countries after the pandemic.
At the same time, the pandemic disrupted the delivery of traditional therapeutic treatment in various settings such as workplaces, schools, and private practice. This disruption, coupled with the pressing need for additional mental health resources, left individuals grappling with emotional distress and little to no professional mental health support.
It was digital mental health solutions that made it possible to access care—across countries, therapists shifted to teletherapy and individuals actively sought virtual mental healthcare solutions. In the absence of access to traditional in-person therapy, digital mental health companies could offer care and support at a critical and pressing time, attending to the treatment gap. This significantly increased the number of people accessing digital mental health care.
Financial costs, geographical location, social class, and stigma around mental health are often barriers to seeking in-person mental health treatment. Digital mental health provides an opportunity to improve access to mental health care by bypassing these obstacles and bringing quality mental health solutions to the palm of your hands, often in a more cost-effective manner. Mental health apps such as Wysa offer both accessibility and convenience, providing round-the-clock support for everyday stressors and critical moments when traditional therapy isn’t available. “With high treatment cost and limited access to qualified therapists, employers, healthcare providers, and insurers are seeking ways to help people manage their mental health and well-being through clinically proven, cost-effective, and scalable solutions…” points out Mr. Ramakant Vempati, co-founder of Wysa.
Recent research suggests that digital mental health does in fact already improve and holds the possibility of further improving access to mental health services across ethnic and racial minorities, individuals situated in rural areas, individuals experiencing homelessness, and individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. This is viable for several reasons such as anonymity, cost-effective care, and remote access.
With these benefits, organisations are also offering corporate counselling through mobile apps because of their improved accessibility. Corporate wellness companies are now shifting to virtual platforms, acknowledging the need for accessible emotional support and recognising its benefits.
Overall, digital mental health holds the potential to alleviate mental healthcare disparities across society by catering to a significantly larger population than traditional in-person therapy.
Several digital mental health services are non-clinician based, such as AI-powered chatbots, videos, written content and interactive virtual exercises. These are available to individuals at any time of the day, allowing them to access this support around the clock. Further, app-based support means that individuals can download these digital mental health tools on their phones at any time, without the deterrent of the long wait time often involved in seeking in-person care which negatively impacts health outcomes. Digital mental health solutions have become the preferred alternative for this reason.
4. Customised support
Every person has different needs and symptoms that require different kinds of mental healthcare. Another advantage of digital mental health is its ability to provide customised support to its users. This is particularly relevant for corporate counselling where instead of large-scale organisational programs, corporate wellness companies are offering tools that can be customised to personal needs and goals.
The reason digital mental health solutions continue to grow is because of their effectiveness with treatment outcomes. Research suggests that mobile health apps for the management of mental health were effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, along with reducing suicidal ideations. Further, digital mental health services were also capable of building quality therapeutic alliances between professionals and users, contributing to improvements in subjective well-being. The consistent evidence in favour of its effectiveness has contributed significantly to its growth.
Digital mental health is a new and exciting field with immense potential to reach individuals and bridge existing disparities in mental healthcare. The pandemic brought it to the spotlight, opening possibilities for us to explore and harness. As it grows in the future, it will be important for digital mental health solution companies to pay attention to considerations around data protection and clinical safety. For instance, Wysa is dedicated to providing quality and ethical mental health care. It takes an industry-leading approach to privacy that does not capture any identifiable user data. This makes users feel secure and enables them to focus on their care. Thus, the appropriate use of digital tools and virtual care can go a long way toward improving the mental health service provision landscape.
Photo by Jep Gambardella