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Mental Health App Development: Tips For Building a Truly Useful Anxiety & Depression App

We have been watching a rapidly growing interest in digital wellness mobile apps over the last 2-3 years. This is influenced by growing mental health awareness and gradual destigmatization of issues like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.

Today such apps help monitor symptoms and deliver treatment, addressing various disorders, from anxiety and trouble sleeping, to eating disorders. The American Psychiatric Organization (APA) remarks that current self-help apps target all major psychiatric illness and therapeutic modalities.

How can a new app attract customers and win their trust on such a booming market? Here are some thoughts from Itexus’ mental health app development experts.

Apps for Anxiety & Depression: Key Facts

First of all, we have collected some facts about mental health apps to answer the main questions about the market and its state.

How big is the segment?

The mental health apps market generated US $587.9 million in 2018. With an expected growth rate of 23.7% from 2019-2027, it is predicted to reach nearly US $4 billion by 2027.

Is it stagnating or growing?

It is growing, and doing it remarkably well. Today it presents one of the most promising online healthcare industries, with depression ranked third as holding the highest mHealth market potential. 

What sort of content do mental health apps provide?

The Nature Digital Medicine conducted a study of 1435 apps, from which selected the 350 top-ranked ones. Here are some facts about their content:

  • 36% contain information or psychoeducation
  • 32% – therapy/treatment
  • 25% – symptom or mood monitoring
  • 12% – self-assessment
  • 11% – peer/community support. 

81% of them give focus on a single health-related functionality, while nearly 11% describe 2, and 4.1% – 3 functions. 4.1% don’t provide any clear description of the delivered functionality.

depression application

What about the most successful digital wellness apps?

The most successful are the apps focused on mindfulness and meditation (namely, Calm and Headspace). The two generated more than 90% of the top 10 apps’ revenue in Q1 2018.

All in all, the top 10 grossing self-care apps earned US$27 million in worldwide revenue in the same quarter.

How efficient are mental health apps?

mHealth apps have proved effective in reducing symptoms of depression (“moderate positive effect”) and anxiety

Another controlled trial showed: compared to clinic-based group intervention, mobile applications show superior patient engagement and patient satisfaction when it comes to illness management for patients with serious mental disorders.

How is the mental health market regulated?

Today, there is a certain regulatory gap in the industry. Institutions like FDA take a hands-off approach, without executing any control over the usefulness of mental health apps – or the potential harm they can cause. Specialists call digital wellness mobile apps “a booming under-regulated market”.

How to Turn a Good Mental Health App into the Best One

Today a customer chooses from the 3 main types of mental health apps:

  • Offering therapy interventions for mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and others, and often used as part of the clinical care program.
  • Providing mindfulness and meditation practices to increase focus, happiness, and calm.
  • Functioning as a platform with authorized therapists, conducting therapy sessions with clients online. 

These apps are pretty different in use. However, only a few apps in each category turn out to be truly effective. So how to stand out from the competition and build an app that won’t be deleted after the first use? 

Such renowned organizations as the American Psychiatric Association (APA), work on developing an app rating system, that would provide assessment guidelines for the efficacy and risks of mental health apps. It is supposed to change the current practice of evaluating self-help apps based solely on a marketing description in an app store. 

If science doesn’t outpace sales, at least sales will become more informative and transparent about their app.

The APA’s rating system is based on 4 major parameters:

  • Safety/Privacy
  • Scientific evidence 
  • Ease of use
  • Interoperability

This provides directions for further product improvement and enhancement.

Safety/privacy

Problem

Though the situation is changing, it is still hard for many people to overcome social stigma related to receiving mental health treatment. 

According to the WHO statistics, one out of four people struggles with mental health issues, and two-thirds of them don’t seek professional help. 

Mental health apps can be of great help here – under the condition that customers keep their treatment private.

Given the under-regulated status of digital wellness apps today, there is a lot of concern about how secure it is to share personal data with these apps. And there is “fair ground of doubt” for that: a study from the BMJ Publishing Group Limited (March 2019) showed that 19 of 24 of the most popular health apps in the Google Play marketplace transmit user data to at least one third-party recipient.

Solution

Mental health apps’ developers disclose their policies of sharing user data with third parties – but do so in an unclear way.

John Torous, director of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts: “It is clear that most privacy policies are nearly impossible to read and understand”.

That’s why users appreciate the approach of the Molehill Mountain app, an anxiety app for autistic people – it features a plain-language privacy statement, revealing what data the app is collecting from customers, how it will be processed, and what rights users have with regard to their own data. 

Tip: If a mental health app passes the received data to third parties, at least it should declare it to users openly and unambiguously.

Scientific evidence

Problem

When it comes to self-care apps, customers are seeking scientifically proven information. 
But what happens in reality? The Nature Digital Medicine study shows: 64% of studied mental health apps claim effectiveness, with nothing supporting it but scientific language (44%), “random” techniques not validated by scholarly literature searches (33%), “wisdom of the crowd” (19%), and lived experience (14%). None of them contained referenced certification, accreditation processes, or high-quality evidence.

Solution

Step by step,  public authorities are introducing regulations and rules to validate these apps, so product owners will soon face a dilemma: providing their applications with high-level evidence – or quitting the market of digital wellness products. 

Tip: Accreditation processes, app libraries, and scientifically proven frameworks will add true value to mental health apps and support clinicians in recommending them to their clients.

Ease of Use

Problem

Generally speaking, mHealth is not associated with top-notch UX/UI design. But mental health apps can give you a second thought – most of them boast a minimalistic, yet sleek and attractive look and feel. 

Self-help app owners have their reasons for that. According to a clinical review, published in Evidence Based Mental Health Month, 74% of users stop engaging with the app after only 10 uses, with poor app design cited as one of the main reasons for it, along with useless content and privacy concerns.

Solution

Here is the definition of the “ease of use” notion, given by IGI Global: “The degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free of effort”. Successful digital wellness apps are built with app usability and simplicity in mind, so that users, especially those who suffer from depression and mental disorders, don’t make any additional effort to comprehend how it functions. 

Tip: Try to simplify the use of a mental health app and make it as intuitive and user-centric as possible.

mental health app

Interoperability

Problem

This criterion shows how an app may allow data sharing among health professionals, patients, and others in useful ways. User data from mental healthcare apps is usually identified as sensitive, which puts certain restrictions on its processing and sharing.

Solution
Transferring data to healthcare service providers

Here it is important to note that in case of mental health apps, we deal with sensitive health-related data transferred to medical institutions and healthcare organizations. 

If data is regularly sent to a regional Health Information System, security standards should be integrated into the existing infrastructure. This is achieved via relevant data transfer standards (like FHIR, DIrect and C-CDA) and translation of clinical data into a clinical document architecture (CDA) file. 

Integration of mental health apps into an IoT ecosystem

Smartwatches and smart screens are widely used for monitoring mental health. Once you put a behavioral health app into a connected sensor-equipped architecture, full of sleep-tracking devices and wearables measuring blood pressure and heart rate, you add value to your app and augment a number of potential end-users.

Once you are ready to launch a mental wellness app, take some time to check whether it meets the following 6 HEALTH guidelines, where each letter stands for a feature:

  • Human, i.e. relating an app’s user to a therapist or any form of social support.
  • Evidence-based, keeping in mind scientifically proven methods when building a mental health app.
  • Accepting, which is a principal issue in digital therapy. In practice, it means, for example, cautiousness with the language used in the app or providing some forms of supervision.
  • Lasting, i.e. motivating customers to continue using an app. While in other apps it usually takes a form of gamification (badges, rewards, etc.), in case of mental health apps, product owners and their designers should be careful and try other forms of motivation and support. For example, try not just to explain what a user should do to stay calm, but what he is doing right already that is helping him.
  • Tested, i.e. how your target audience feels about using an app. Here, it is necessary to keep in mind the needs and peculiarities of end-users, as some mental health issues affect one’s ability to concentrate or feel in control of a situation. That is, usability testing should be performed on a specific group of users, to track down their necessities and difficulties.
  • Holistic, which goes beyond simple diagnosis and treatment advice. The holistic approach to building a wellness app means that a product owner takes into account the full amount of information about potential users: their age, mental state, healthcare literacy, etc. – and puts his effort into delivering the most suitable solution.

Conclusion

Thrilled by the perspectives of the mental health apps market? Ready to face the challenges of its tight competition and win your share? 

Start with searching for a tech vendor, who already has:

  • A portfolio of mobile app development projects under their belt.  
  • Skills in applying security standards to sensitive and valuable data protection.
  • Expertise in working with complex interconnected ecosystems.

Looking for developers for your project?

Drop us a line for a consultation and a free quote for your project.

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February 25, 2020

By Itexus Team