The Rise of Mental Health Apps

Aizere Assylbek (2nd year Law)

Now that we are most of the way through 2021, it is clear that some parts of the world have dealt with COVID-19 better than others. Regarding the UK, it is fair to say that the pandemic could have been handled better. December’s lockdown meant that people were, once again, forced to stay at home – threatening their mental health. A model provided by Centre for Mental Health predicted that 10 million people (almost 20% of the population in England) will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis. At the same time, developers of apps like Headspace, Calm and Happify have seen a sharp rise in their popularity. Recently, Headspace have even released a documentary on Netflix called ‘Guide to Meditation’. 

So, why is this important? 

There is an evident correlation between mental health and the economy. It is estimated that mental illnesses reduced GDP by 4.1% in the UK and Europe. In the United Kingdom, the overall annual cost of work-related stress to employers is estimated to be over £26bn, driven by increased staff turnover, performance degradation, and absenteeism. Further, there is evidence that apps such as Headspace and Calm can be effective in tackling the mental health crisis. Studies have shown that smartphone-based apps can have a positive effect on reducing depression symptoms – though the extent of this positive effect varies. One of these studies were conducted by researchers at UCL, where participants were 238 employees from two large UK companies. Participants were asked to complete one mediation session per day from Headspace for 8 weeks. The benefits of using an app-based approach was that participants had the freedom to choose when and where they could complete the meditation sessions. The outcome was that employees who completed more than 6 sessions in 8 weeks reported an improvement in daily well-being, decreased job stress and better job control. These results were sustained for two months after the initial start of the study. 

An advantage of these apps is how accessible they are. The monthly subscription for Headspace is £9.99/month and £49.99/annually. In comparison, just one private visit to a psychiatrist could cost between £60-£200. However, though meditation does have its place in improving general well-being, it does not replace the human factor which is so important in tackling mental health issues. As one might expect, the pandemic has left its mark on the workplace. Employees are mostly working from home, meaning the best approach would be to use the smartphone-based apps. However, there is an overwhelming selection of apps available – and not all of them are appropriate. Some notable concerns are security measures, developer credentials and advisors, pricing options and fees. Therefore, employers should be aware of these issues when choosing an appropriate method for protecting their employees’ mental health. Data privacy is now a hot topic – with Facebook and Google being heard in front of US Congress, with some users starting to become more aware of how corporations are handling their data as a result. Every time a person registers as a new user, they provide personal information to platforms – along with consent for this data to be stored and handled in various ways. This is especially frightening when users are giving information about their mental health. Generally, apps like Headspace or Calm are compliant with GDPR; though this does not always guarantee that the data is fully secure. Regardless of this, Headspace was a popular choice among employers, reporting that they had 500% increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees. 

Calm was founded in 2012 and Headspace in 2010, though general awareness of the benefits of meditation at the time was not what it is now. The situation has changed for both of the apps: Calm was able to raise $75 million from investors such as Goldman Sachs Group and Salesforce. As of June 2020, Headspace was able to raise $216 million, with some of the backers including Blisce/Waverley Capital and Times Bridge (the global investments and partnerships arm of The Times Group of India). Founders of Calm intend to grow through acquiring other businesses and growing the company through M&A. The company was previously valued at $1 billion making it a “Unicorn” company. However, there is no indication that either Headspace or Calm are going to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. 

In the current reality of a changed working environment post-COVID, digital solutions offer an important way to deliver much-needed mental health services at a reduced cost and at increased convenience. The fact that more companies are starting to understand the significance of their workers’ mental health is a promising development of corporate culture.

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