With the pandemic increasing levels of anxiety and stress, people are turning to apps to get expert advice or simply breathe easy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been an eye-opener not just for physical health issues, but also for mental well-being. For many, the past year has been a period of financial distress, changing relationship dynamics and lack of human interactions, which have given rise to a plethora of mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression. Consequently, along with the rise of telemedicine, at-home fitness options and digital therapy, there has been a surge in the number of apps that support mental wellbeing.
A 2015 study by industry body Assocham found that 42.5 percent of private sector employees showed symptoms of anxiety or depression, but only 1,000 of the country’s 1.1 million active registered companies have facilities to help employees manage their mental health.
Lending a helping hand to this neglected population is YourDost, an app that was launched in 2014. The subscription-based app is available only to companies, and has clients such as the CK Birla Group, Capillary Technologies, upGrad and educational institutes such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and IIT Madras.
In the past year, the app has seen a surge in issues such as anxiety, anger or frustration, and loneliness. These, says founder Richa Singh, result in a deterioration of the quality of sleep, and a sharp rise in emotional outbursts. “We saw a 120 percent rise in the number of sessions taken on the platform by working professionals, just as the lockdowns started,” says Singh. Some of the frequently discussed issues are anxiety management, relationships, and dealing with burnouts. YourDost has more than 900 experts on its platform, offering assistance round the clock for issues related to anxiety triggered by Covid-19; it also on-boarded more than 100 corporates in the past year.
YourDost has raised $1.6 million in two rounds of funding. “Today, the conversations around mental health have become louder, particularly in the corporate sector,” says Aneesh Reddy, co-founder and CEO of Capillary Technologies, one of YourDost’s earliest angel investors and first corporate client. “The opportunity for platforms like YourDost even post-pandemic is large, as corporate India is looking out for a scientific approach towards emotion wellness programmes, and as an investment for the long term.”
In a country where, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 7.5 percent of the population suffers from depression and 38 million more from anxiety disorders, poor investments in mental health care means there are only 30 psychiatrists for every 10 million people. Further, the exorbitant cost of therapy and the stigma associated with it leaves many more needing help out of the ecosystem.
To bridge this gap are more apps, such as Mindhouse, Evergreen Club, and ThinkRight.me, which promote mental wellbeing for individuals. “These apps are helpful and very resourceful. But I don’t think they can be a substitute for professional mental health care,” warns Tanuja Babre, programme coordinator, iCALL, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “However, they complement mental health care beautifully for those who are relying upon these apps for symptom management and for those who are working upon themselves to become more aware of their mental health. When I’m working with clients, I also recommend these apps.”
Launched in April 2020, Mindhouse has one simple goal: To make meditation and yoga-based mental wellness solutions more accessible and affordable, says Pooja Khanna, co-founder, Mindhouse. Users can chat with a wellness expert in real-time on the app, and subscribe to quarterly (Rs 399) or annual (Rs 699) plans. The app also offers content on guided meditation, yoga, natural soundscapes, music, podcasts, and sleep stories. With more than 2 lakh downloads since its launch, the app was recently introduced in the UAE.
“We’ve seen a tremendous uptake of our live interactive classes, and users say our content has helped reduce their stress and anxiety levels, ensure better sleep, and improve productivity while working from home,” adds Khanna.
“The bite-sized guided audio sessions for meditation are handy for regular use as we work from home,” says Pramod Rao, founder of Threado, an engagement platform for brands, and a Mindhouse user. “I use it three to four times a week and it is helping me focus and manage stress better.”
During the pandemic-related restrictions, people have had to deal with inconsistent schedules, home-schooling children, loss of work and its financial impact, and increased screen-time—all of which can contribute to sleep deprivation and impact overall wellbeing. To help people track their sleep cycle and gauge their risk of getting sleep apnoea is a free app called myNight by ResMed, which was launched in 2020.
“The benefits of a healthy sleep cycle are many, one being a reduction in stress and anxiety; it allows us to be more productive,” says Carlos Montiel, vice president, Latin America and South Asia, Asia, ResMed. Sleep apnoea is a disorder in which the throat muscles relax to the point of collapse, and restrict airflow. Almost 936 million people worldwide have sleep apnoea, yet most are undiagnosed and suffer numerous health impacts, including mental health issues.
“The idea behind launching the app was to encourage people to practice a healthy sleep lifestyle and educate them about the repercussions of sleep disorders,” adds Montiel.
For the same, the myNight app uses a non-invasive technology by capturing breathing and snoring sounds while a person sleeps to analyse the risk of sleep apnoea. The platform also provides motivational information and expert suggestions, encouraging users to practice a healthy sleep cycle.
For 45-year-old banker, Sandeep Tandon, the app’s observations took him by surprise. “I was in denial about my snoring, and never admitted it. myNight gave me a complete analysis and prompted me to take action on my sleep problem, which has ultimately resulted in an improvement in my overall mental health,” he says.
The pandemic made people realise the importance of investing time and effort on mental health, and apps continued to cash in on the opportunity. Petit BamBou, a mindfulness and meditation app available in six languages and with over 7 million users globally, entered India last August with its monthly and yearly subscription plans. Its unique proposition is guided meditation through a combination of storytelling, mindfulness experts and animations.
“We saw a sharp increase in the number of new users globally—from 5,000 a day to 15,000 a day—during March-April 2020,” says Benjamin Blasco, co-founder, Petit BamBou; in India, the app saw a surge in users last August and September, and has 2 lakh users. “We are likely to see new habits emerge around physical and mental health, nutrition, and sleep. These will continue and grow over time. We are not looking for investors, as our revenue is helping us grow at a sustainable pace.”
Sarva, a subscription-based yoga and meditation app, was launched in April 2020, after more than 85 of their high-end yoga studios spread across five cities shut down owing to the pandemic. Since going 100 percent digital, the app has seen half a million downloads, of which 12 percent are monthly active users. With investors including celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Malaika Arora and Shikhar Dhawan, its content includes pranayama practices, deep sleep modules, and low intensity modules for better posture.
“The interest in fitness will increase gradually because people have clearly experienced the benefits of being healthy in these past few months. I am very positive about health becoming a set of new habits and eventually a lifestyle change,” says founder Sarvesh Shashi.
To cater to one of the most vulnerable segments of the population, senior citizens, RPG Group’s Seniority, an online shopping portal, launched an app called Evergreen Club in January 2021. “We wanted to address the issue of loneliness and social isolation among senior citizens, which got accentuated due to the pandemic. With restricted movements and high vulnerability to Covis-19, they have had to compromise on their daily routines, leading to poor mental and physical health,” says Tapan Mishra, founder, Seniority.
The app has crossed more than 18,000 downloads as of March. Online sessions that include meditation, yoga, dance and gardening are currently conducted free of cost, but Mishra says the company is considering subscription plans and bundled packages. “The Evergreen Club is not designed for fun and frolic just during the pandemic. It serves to solve a more core issue of loneliness and persistent isolation among seniors. The platform is becoming a habit among our members as they find a sense of purpose and belonging through our activities,” he adds.
Sangeeta Singh, a user of the app, agrees: “This app has become my best friend. It’s giving us all types of information, entertainment and knowledge sitting comfortably at home. Giving seniors ample time and attention is scarce these days.”
Continuing to experience high traffic during the lockdown was another app, ThinkRight.me, which has been around since 2018. It saw maximum traffic between last April and June, a 50 percent rise in daily active user count, and a significant increase in subscriptions. To help tackle stress, ThinkRight.me curated Covid-19 content that ranged from building inner resilience, overcoming overthinking, inner peace, and meditation for positivity.
“In our recently conducted survey, we found that peace and happiness top the charts across all age groups. This new habit will only get enhanced with time,” says Rajan Navani, vice chairman and managing director, JetSynthesys, a digital entertainment and technology company that launched ThinkRight.me.
These apps help remove barriers to treatment, says Dr Roma Kumar, chief psychologist, at online counselling platform Emotionally.in. “Mental health apps have the potential to reach people who would otherwise not receive help. The apps are lighter on the wallet, available for all smartphone users, and ensure greater privacy,” she adds. However, it is important to understand the difference between mindfulness and a mental health issue, she warns. “Some apps provide sessions with licensed therapists via text, video, and voice call, and help is just a call away. Other apps only bring together content from leading mental health experts designed to help users learn how to improve their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Therefore, these apps will work best when used in conjunction with medication and/or in-person therapy.”
The pandemic is expected leave many with mental health issues. “It is being predicted that in the next few years, depression and anxiety are going to be the highest cause of disease burden in India,” says Babre of TISS. So, while there is a greater conversation around mental health, people need to be aware of the mushrooming of such apps and services. “Many of these services are promoting themselves as a one-stop solution to various mental health needs. The role of the app is key, but the dependence on it as a quick-fix is worrisome.”
She adds that there needs to be regulations, and practices need to be monitored by a qualified professional. “The future would be promising if these apps create something that is inclusive—taking into consideration India’s varied population, coming from difference classes, castes, education, and languages. Today, how many apps even cater to a non-English speaking populations?” she asks.
The pandemic has presented an opportunity for people to talk about mental health. Nelson Moses, founder of Suicide Prevention India Foundation says, “This might be a good time for the government to more seriously implement the Mental Health Care Act 2017, which promises mental health care for all with a rights-based approach. It is time to mainstream the mental health conversation, so that there’s awareness, increase in help-seeking and shedding of stigma. It is time for a mental health movement that normalises these conversations and leads to a focus on mental wellbeing right from a young age.”