The Coronavirus pandemic has catalysed mental health acceptance globally. In a survey, conducted by the charity Mind, 68% of young people saw their mental health worsen over lockdown. During a time when solitude became the norm, 1 in 4 people trying to access mental health care wasn’t able to, fearing that they would burden the already overwhelmed NHS.
A mental health crisis has been brewing for decades, but out of the uncertainty this year, a new form of treatment is gaining traction. In the US alone, there are now seven mental health “unicorns”, or startups valued at over $1 billion.
Rock Health reports that venture capitalists have invested $1.8 billion into digital mental health startups, 3 times the investment seen in 2019. Many barriers have made traditional mental health support difficult to access during the pandemic.
“I’m deaf, I hear less than 50% of a phone conversation. Phone calls can be a nightmare. We are in 2020 now, every business and Government department should offer email or online chat by default”, one participant responded to Mind’s survey.
Furthermore, the WHO reports that less than 50% of low-income countries were able to deploy telephone counselling in the wake of the pandemic.
Betterhelp, claiming to be the largest online counselling platform globally, is an online service where patients have the choice to contact their therapist through 24/7 messages, or phone and video calls. It has been widely promoted by social media personalities through sponsorships, targeting a younger generation that has had trouble accessing more traditional mental health therapies lately.
Traditional therapies don’t have the capacity to innovate that would allow mental health startups to continuously enhance their services. One of Mind’s survey participants said of traditional therapy, “It’s so hard to get support, lots of services are busy and it can take up to an hour to get a reply. I don’t like making phone calls because my parents will hear me.” Mental health startups may provide some respite for those battling the long wait times burdening the NHS, or the costly healthcare system in the US.
Healthcare in the US is fragmented. Specialists within different fields don’t communicate about their patients, but technology can play a role in improving this “collaborative care”.
Not only can digital mental health apps be more efficient, but they’re profitable. According to the WHO, $5 is returned for every $1 invested. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the pandemic allowed meditation app Calm to reach a valuation of over $2 billion.
“Our mission is to make the world happier and healthier”, the Calm website claims in bold. Upon opening the app, users are met with a serene lake scene and a “Daily Calm” audio clip promising to bring instant relief from the stresses of modern life. The app features expert meditation tutorials, sleep tracks, and music. The nature scenes feature provided a form of escapism over lockdown, a period where outdoor exposure was limited to one hour a day.
As well as investment, mental health startups have seen drastic growth in engagement. Flow is a wearable headset with an accompanying app that sends electrical signals to the brain. They claim to reduce symptoms of depression in just 6 weeks, which they attribute to low activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Flow reportedly witnessed a 247% increase in the use of their headset during COVID-19, which may reflect people’s willingness to experiment with newer treatments in the face of adversity.
This adversity faced by young people has led to fears that poor mental health will negatively impact their job prospects. As a result, the government has made positive strides in funding. A £500 million mental health recovery plan has been launched, including £79 million for children and young people’s services.
It appears that a crisis was needed to mobilise this funding, but there is hope to be found in these figures. The question remains: can technology, a threat to mental wellbeing, ultimately be used for good? Despite the boom in funding and acceptance, evidence-based research continues to determine the answer to this technology paradox.
The apps discussed here claim not to substitute professional medical help. If you’re in a crisis, call 999 immediately. For other help with mental health, please consult the resources below:
NHS – www.nhs.uk/mental-health