I've been learning about self-awareness and the importance of mental health over the past 10 years, but I hardly used mobile apps or such to support my mental state. The human soul has always been an interesting topic for me and I was curious about what kind of products are available in the digital world for those dealing with mental health issues. What do you need to know about mental health awareness when designing a digital product, and why is it so important to understand its background?
How did the digital world reshape our self-care routines and habits since the pandemic and what are the responsibilities of UX professionals in this? Are there any guidelines and regulations for digital products that designers need to follow? Check out this article to get an overview of mental health products before starting to build one.
Let’s talk about mental health as we see it today
The state that affects how we feel, think, and act on our emotional, psychological, and physical levels is called mental health. This complex shield is connected to how we handle stress, make choices and relate to others. We start developing our mental health in childhood. However, our mental health changes all the time depending on what difficult situations we are dealing with.
Good mental health is essential for many reasons. These include being able to cope with stress, having good relationships, being able to work productively, and doing meaningful acts in our community. If we don’t build this invisible protection for ourselves, we may face mental or physical blocks. And that can lead to serious health problems in the long run.
Many factors affect our mental health, depending on our bio-social background including our family history, life experiences, and lifestyle too. And there are also many aspects of assessing what we need to build or maintain balance in our life.
According to the 2021 report from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation about mental health, it is obvious that depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses these days. And unfortunately, women have a higher prevalence of these. According to the WHO latest article on mental health, the overall number of people struggling with mental illness is constantly increasing. Just in the last 2 years, the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety is up by 25%.
First steps for a better mental health
Although much of recent news tends to focus on how technology destroys our mental health, technology can also play a role in building resilience. The NHS suggestion list says that, in order to improve our mental health we should connect with other people, be physically active, learn new skills, act with kindness and be mindful.
Well, if you imagine yourself in a stressful situation you might not think about a to-do list that you could pull out of your pocket and handle any situation with the magic words. Thanks to mental health workers, there are lots of practices that we can implement in our lives in order to cope. Also, it only takes a few times until you get any new habits into your well-being practice. Still, there is no magic tool that works for everybody and helps in every situation.
The first step in any stressful situation is to recognize the point when we need help. The next one is to assess our resources and act accordingly. Here are some tips on where to start the journey:
- Ask for help – If you experience any sort of unpleasant situation in your life, get professional help and talk about it. Sharing your difficulties with a person who can help you build a resilient attitude is a great way to improve your mental health
- Move – Physical exercise can reduce stress and even improve symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression. I think there is no need to further explain the importance of regular physical exercise, this just needs to apply to everyday life.
- Try out and practice tools – Good mental health can be supported by a daily routine.To this end, there are quite a few tools that can help. For example, think about yoga or meditation exercises which are available anytime and anywhere and see how you can add those to your life. These can be used along with digital tools as well.
Image source: Pexels
How smartphones can help with mental health
Speaking of routines, smartphones offer a huge variety of applications we can use for our daily activities. We use our smartphones as an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, we use it as a platform to read news, connect with friends and family, capture moments, work, and also have entertainment and relaxation.
So how can we use our trusted little helper when we feel unsupported, lost, depressed, or stressed out? The good news is that application stores have a huge variety of tools for these purposes. We collected the most popular platforms that can help to maintain and strengthen our mental health. For any UX professional, I highly recommend trying out these apps.
Mental health app categories
While there are a lot available, mental health apps all have different goals and features to help users achieve their milestones in the journey of self-care. Here are the broad categories:
- General mental health applications: These apps can help users learn about their emotional health. Usually, these offer features that support users to form new habits and take control of their mood (What’s Up, 7 Cups of Tea).
- Education and assessment applications: Apps like these are meant to educate users about mental health disorders. They also have features that mental health practitioners use to recognize the disorders. (Moodmission)
- Mental disorder applications: For people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety might be a very good supporting tool. Apps in this category have features like mood monitoring, cognitive behavioral therapy, and skills training (Happify, Talkspace, nOCD, Worry Watch).
- Self-improvement applications: These are specifically designed to help users improve their mental health or just maintain it. Apps like this usually come with breathing techniques, meditation, and relaxation programs built-in (Mind Shift, Quit that!, Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Smiling Mind).
- Treatment adherence applications: Apps in this category support users to manage their conditions without any supervision. Apps like this usually have reminders about taking medications, and they also offer journaling to follow up on feelings and avoid difficulties (Know your CML, CML Today, Point of Care).
- Peer connection application: Apps in this category are like social media platforms for users to share their experiences about the same or similar mental health diagnoses (29K, Vent, Mental Mentor).
Image source: Pexels
Most popular mental health apps
Most popular mental health applications according to Sensor Towers’s report “April 2020s top performers by downloads were dominated by meditation apps, with Calm placing at No. 1 with 3.9 million downloads, Headspace at No. 2 with 1.5 million installs, and Meditopia at No. 3 with 1.4 million.”
There is no doubt that since 2022 this market has been growing bigger than ever. On the one hand, this is frightening, as it shows that our society needs mental support more than ever. On the other hand, it also indicates that more and more people are taking mental health seriously in addition to physical health and they are doing something about it.
Some applications offer a freemium for users, and the monthly or annual subscription fee for most of them is still cheaper than a therapy session. Since they’re easily accessible, more and more people choose this “first aid kit” to prevent or treat mental health issues. Just as booking a session with a professional mental health session, users can choose the timing and the location on their own and even the pace of their progress when using the application. Although using any well-being digital product does not replace traditional therapy, health experts say these will play an essential role in the future.
Let’s see some examples of what Calm and Headspace offer their users. We compared their products according to their features.
- Accessible from any device
- It has an onboarding tutorial with a breathing exercise, so users can easily get engaged
- Goal selection is added in a personalized way
- Users can track their progress
- The free version is available with limitations regarding content, there is also a 7 days trial period and a subscription to a premium package
- This app is great for beginners too
- The main features are breathing exercises, sleep programs, relaxation, mindfulness techniques, and sleep stories narrated by celebrities, background sounds work in many situations
- Payment has to be added upon registration (do not forget to cancel)
- Accessible from any device
- The onboarding is with a guiding voice, this is their main component (using Andy Puddicombe, the CEO and co-founder of Headspace calming voice)
- The application is built around video clips, where the design is very important
- The first sessions are very short focusing on not overwhelming the users with too long practices, so they offer 10 Free Trial sessions that include 10 minutes sessions each
- with six accompanying videos
- Their approach is to start the exercises with small steps, when a session is completed that unlocks the next meditation in the series, which are available only with a subscription
- The main features are session timer, e-mail reminders, progress tracking, program training, and an app community, they also have high-quality, short, video infographics, which help users in the guided meditation
- Users can track and review their progress
- The design is created in a way to connects the users and the characters of the videos by growing empathy
These are just the two most popular applications used by millions of people to help get support other than from a connection to a therapist or other traditional mental health services.
But what about cases where it’s not only about maintenance when there is a severe mental illness and the patients need regular check-ups and treatments? There is a list of recommendations by Psycom where we can read about suicide prevention, addiction, bipolar and eating disorder, PTSD, and many other cases.
Core features in mental health applications
There are more than 10.000 mental health applications today and most of them don’t perform very well or do not even serve the users’ needs. As users take more action to improve their mental health, better applications also need to be developed. Let’s discover the main features of these digital products which we can find on the market.
Registration, login, and creating a profile can be the first pain point of the user flow – if they’re not done properly. It is essential to get as much information as we can from the users so they can have personalized content after these steps and keep the focus on not overwhelming users with long questionnaires. Animations and a friendly tone can help users in this stressful process.
Self-monitoring is tracking stress levels, mood patterns, and sleeping cycles. This also helps users to view their progress and write their journals as well. Self-monitoring is important when users don’t have the ability to observe their living conditions on a larger and broader scale, or when they observe it too much. Self-monitoring can bring optimal tracking of their daily activities.
Notifications and reminders are key features to keep users engaged, but this should also be an optional item. Forming habits requires discipline and persistence. For users who avoid discipline and for those who need constant motivation and feedback, notifications and reminders can be useful during their journey.
The option to share is also vital, users feel more comfortable if they can connect with their peers and celebrate their milestones within the community.
Features specific to mental health apps
Having a supportive community can play an essential role in the app’s success. Anonymized support groups, forums, and chat messages can have a positive impact on the therapies. We are all social beings, and the feeling of belonging can have a huge impact on our mental health. Users can have their closed or public communities where they feel cared for and safe. Also, users can have their own roles and purposes within the community which helps give meaning to life.
Connecting patients with actual therapists could be added to mental health products where the product is more than maintenance for mental health. of course, these sessions have advantages and disadvantages compared to live in-person sessions, which is why it is worth paying special attention to the reliability and quality of these features.
Don’t forget about the most important elements of the mental health applications which are the calming and relaxing tasks. These can be breathing exercises, meditation programs, yoga stretches, or even bedtime stories. Calm has a very nice breathing exercise with a simple circle where the size of the circle expands on inhalation and narrows on exhalation to make sure that the breathing is consistent. JustLikeBuddha is an English and Hungarian guided meditation app offering visualization, samatha, vipassana, and mindfulness meditation sessions. For users who are not familiar with these, it can be stressful to find the right tone and not be too intrusive. The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study where patients used an app for 30 days and they had significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Image source: UISources
Gamification has its pros and cons, but it can create an entertaining aspect of serious therapies too. Some applications tend to work more like games. When a game is applied to the exercises, it teaches users not to run away from life’s difficulties, but to start facing them playfully.
The hotline should be available, and emergency calls and messages would be great to provide for the users.
Mindful design – guidelines, and regulations to keep in mind
The holistic point of view of the design process
Designers who work on products or services to support people with mental health issues have already got the best database support from healthcare professionals. They just need to apply the knowledge we already have about possible users, while keeping in mind that the app is for caring about others.
Let’s take an example. You have an experienced therapist who specialized in a field. They have already talked to several people and know the patterns and possibilities that might help people in need with their mental state. And you have a designer, who knows how to build an application. All we need to do is let healthcare professionals work alongside digital experts to provide the best user experience in mental health applications.
Madpow (an American design agency acquired by an Indian global systems integrator) has created a list of things that help designers follow industry standards. A great example of this kind of collaboration is the Health Experience Design Conference, where executives and practitioners in design, innovation, research, strategy, and technology meet to create a better health system.
Image source: Madpow
And there are several more examples. FDA also rolled out its policy in 2019 for device software functions and mobile medical applications. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has its own app evaluation model. This is used to check the applications with a specific screener and with its users can make sure that the app is safe to use.
Meskó Bertalan, the director of the Medical Futurist Institute in Hungary released this post not so long ago about 50 digital health trends that will usher us further along the path to digital transformation in healthcare. He also writes about lifestyle medicines in which mental health plays an important role. “Lifestyle medicine focuses on educating and motivating patients to improve the quality of their lives by changing personal habits and behaviors around the use of a whole food, plant-predominant dietary lifestyle, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connection.”
This holistic approach could be implemented in all mental health products.
Image source: Linkedin
The essential part to keep in mind when working on mental health products with a in-house team or a product design company, is to involve mental health professionals in the discovery and design processes. Researchers and designers must work together closely with mental health experts from stage zero. The professional content must be designed very carefully focusing on real user needs. Furthermore, the concept should be very clear: who is the target group, why do they need this product and how can we help them? And last but not least the regulations, guidelines, and medical suggestions should be applied.
User experience plays a very important role in the life of digital mental health. While there are thousands of products on the market, we need to keep in mind that for everybody’s mental safety, we should only create digital products that serve a good purpose. It is the responsibility of UX professionals to make life easier for people with mental health issues
Edit: It’s also important to note that none of the apps listed here are paid advertisements