At the stroke of 11 pm every night, Mishika Khanna, 25, embarks on a nightly voyage, guided not by stars, but by soothing whispers of the Calm app. In this soothing digital realm, she seeks refuge from a relentless companion—her four-year battle with tempestuous waves of anxiety.
Khanna says, “My anxiety would get worse at night where I'd literally have to pat myself to sleep. But I also knew that I couldn't be solely dependent on clonotril and anti-depressant tablets. That is how I came across this application two years ago while looking up solutions for anxiety management.” The app's collection of meditation practices, sleep stories, calming sounds and relaxation techniques, Khanna says, have helped her immensely. “Now, I simply log in to the app and choose a bed time story from the library. There are different themes and narrators available,” she shares.
Similarly, Anuj Sharma, 33, has been tracking down his daily moods and emotions via the Daylio app. “After work, I rate my mood on the app. It invites you to assess your mood using a range of 5 emojis: Rad, Good, Meh, Bad, and Awful. Initially, it prompts you daily at a fixed time, but you have the flexibility to personalize this and log your mood whenever you prefer. It helps me monitor my mood and understand what activity makes me happy,” Sharma explains. Figuring out that running uplifts his mood, Sharma these days finds himself going for a run when he is stressed. “The app also has a journal feature that allows you to jot down your thoughts, much like in a personal diary,” he adds.
Is digital intervention a boon?
Digital mental health intervention is the integration of technology in the realm of mental health. The phenomenon has been gaining prominence lately. “Mental health is not merely a facet of health, it's the cornerstone of overall well-being. I've witnessed the paradox of a physically healthy individual paralyzed above the neck. This underscores that it's not the events themselves but our reactions that shape our challenges,” says Doctor TR John, senior consultant - Psychiatry, Aster Medcity, Kochi.
When addressing mental health, it is important to focus on four components: information, assessment, monitoring, and treatment. Digital technology plays a pivotal role here, from providing gentle medication reminders to psychotherapeutic software offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These features represent the impact of technology in advancing mental health care.
Dr. John elaborates, “In terms of information, today, there are apps that can help us perform Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to capture an accurate snapshot of a person's mental state and reduce biases in self-reporting. As for monitoring of symptoms and predictions, John points out to mobile devices with sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and touch screen data that help track movement patterns and screen interactions, which can be indicative of an individual's mental state. “There's the phenomenon known as the galvanic response, where an individual's sweat levels can indicate their anxiety state,” John shares.
Digital technology indeed holds promise in improving mental health care by providing clinicians with more accurate data for assessment and treatment.
Vaibhav Khandelwal, co-founder and chief product officer of Jaipur-based startup Felicity, speaks eloquently on the subject of accessible and affordable mental health support. Felicity, a talk therapy app, seeks to provide individuals with seamless access to mental health therapy through the convenience of online video counseling, all at a cost that doesn't break the bank. Khandelwal explains, “A key aspect of Felicity's approach towards offering mental health services is to remove barriers that might hinder individuals from seeking online therapy.” On the app, the so-called barrier of language is thoughtfully addressed by offering patients consultations in not only English but also regional languages. “This inclusivity ensures that linguistic diversity does not stand as a deterrent to those seeking solace through online sessions,” Khandelwal says. Confidentiality is also assured to patients who sign up, he says. “Anonymity is granted to those who seek it. Safeguarding patient identities and confidential conversations is a cornerstone of our ethos,” he adds.
Mental health apps emerged due to the growing need for scalable and accessible healthcare solutions. With over 10,000 apps on Play Store today, ranging from digital therapeutics to provider listing platforms, the challenge lies in choosing the right one. Often, people select apps based on what shines the brightest or what's popular, influenced by advertisements or recommendations from friends.
Ankita Jain, a sports and counselling psychologist from Hyderabad, says, “The effectiveness of these apps varies from person to person, as individual needs differ. While chatbots gained popularity due to claims that free therapy was better than paying for a therapist, the debate continues.” As Jain rightly notes, chatbots and free apps can provide immediate relief and reduce wait times, but they have their limitations. Critics argue that AI can only perform based on its coding, which may carry biases from normative data and stereotypes. “AI continues to learn and improve but can struggle to adapt to diverse needs, ages and psyches. Human therapists excel in creating bespoke counseling dialogues, unlike AI chatbots and online robots,” Jain says.
Nonetheless, considering the vast population of 1.44 billion in India and a limited number of therapists, apps and AI are becoming essential tools for mental healthcare, even with their flaws. They are here to stay as a means to bridge the gap in mental health support.
Tanisha Saxena is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes stories on the intersection of art, culture and lifestyle.