Demand for mental health applications surges in U.S. during new corona epidemic, experts call for greater oversight

Treatment app developers are eager to welcome an influx of new customers, but health experts remain divided over the future of regulatory paths as privacy and efficacy concerns mount,media CNBC reported. As of early April, nearly half of Americans said the epidemic had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. People are turning to smartphones for help as face-to-face treatment is suspended under the restrictions of “home orders.”

According to Sensor Tower, an app market intelligence firm, the first downloads of the top 20 mental health apps in the U.S. reached 4 million in April, up 29 percent from 3.1 million in January. By contrast, first downloads for the top 20 categories of apps fell 30% in the same period last year.

For most of the year, “these apps experienced a strong January in January because of New Year’s resolutions, but declined in the months that followed,” Sensor Tower co-founder Alexfee Malav told CNBC. “For Covid-19 reasons, this is not the case in 2020. “

According to the American Psychological Association, there are nearly 20,000 mental health apps in the App Store. They range from AI chatbots and mood trackers to services like Talkspace and BetterHelp that connect patients with licensed therapists.

Investors are also bullish on the growing market for therapeutic applications. Calm remains the only mental health company valued at more than $1 billion, but other start-ups are fast following. Mental health companies raised a record $576 million in the quarter as the coronavirus devastated the global economy — 60 percent more than in any previous quarter, according to CB Insights.

Talkspace, which provides video and text therapy services, said its new subscribers nearly doubled between mid-March and May 1 compared with the same period in 2019. At the same time, applications from therapists who want to join the platform have increased by more than 500 per cent, with Neil Leibowitz, the company’s chief medical officer, adding more than 500 per cent to the platform’s user base. Talkspace declined to give exact user data, but according to Sensor Tower, the app’s first U.S. installation spree in April increased 43 percent — from 28,000 to 40,000 — compared with January. In the same period last year, the number of installed apps fell by 15%.

Oren Frank, the company’s chief executive, told CNBC last month that some venture capitalists, including some who had passed earlier, were flocking to invest. The company is still not profitable, and like most VC-backed start-ups, future expansion requires additional capital. But Frank says Talkspace has turned them down so far, preferring to focus on introducing more resources for therapists and patients.

Demand for mental health applications surges in U.S. during new corona epidemic, experts call for greater oversight

Talkspace’s rival, BetterHelp, is also experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand. According to CEO Alon Matas, the number of users who chose the platform specifically to help address stress and anxiety has more than doubled. Matas also declined to say exactly how many users it would have, as its parent company, Teledoc, has not publicly disclosed the metrics.

However, according to Sensor Tower, BetterHelp’s u.S. downloads rose 60 percent from 50,000 in January to 80,000 in April. Between January and April 2019, they grew by only 15 per cent. To satisfy the influx of new clients, both Talkspace and BetterHelp say they are rapidly recruiting new therapists.

“Demand is definitely going to surge in terms of some kind of supply and demand, but our supply is also booming, so we’re confident we can meet that demand,” Matas said. “

Deregulation has contributed to the rise of therapeutic applications

Even before the pandemic, less than half of Americans had been treated for mental illness, according to a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Now, as experts warn that the United States is moving closer to a mental health crisis, government officials are restricting teletherapy. In February, states waived licensing requirements to allow therapists on platforms such as Talkspace and BetterHelp to practice interstate. In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allowed therapists to communicate with patients on platforms that do not meet HIPAA safety standards. And, just last month, the FDA announced it would relax censorship of mental health apps that enter the App Store.

This series of deregulation series may stimulate innovation and spread mental health resources more widely in the face of the pandemic. This also makes the space vulnerable to bad actors and false information, says John Torous, director of digital psychiatry at the Beth Israel Medical Center.

Torous points out that in the App Store, there are “several apps” that are easy to find, claiming to treat mental distress by playing certain important tone-harmonious tones. “Creating apps, including mental health disorders, is minimal,” Torous said. “These are bad examples of the app not doing well. “

In a study published last month by the National Library of Medicine, researchers also found several mental health apps that showed no or incorrect suicide hotlines. The app, which provides inaccurate information, has been downloaded more than 2 million times through the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store.

For the past decade, Dr. Stephen Schueller has been running a non-profit website called Psyberguide, which ranks therapeutic applications based on user experience, data privacy, and scientific evidence. Of the tens of thousands of mental health apps on the app store, he says, only 3 per cent are evidence-based. “Finding an effective treatment is like looking for a needle in a haystack, ” says Schueller. “

Privacy, data sharing in the spotlight

Concerns about privacy and data autonomy are also plaguing the field of teletherapy. In February, Jezebel reported that Both BetterHelp and Talkspace shared data with third parties. BetterHelp’s data includes anonymous receiving forms that contain sensitive information about the user’s mental health history, sexual orientation, and suicidal thoughts.

Alon Matas, CEO of BetterHelp, insists that the company’s data sharing practices are standard practice in the industry. “BetterHelp is in the psychological consulting business, not the data business,” says Matas. “Sharing data with third parties is everywhere throughout the mental health app. In 2019, when researchers looked at data practices for 36 top-ranked depression and quitting apps, they found that more than 80 percent of apps send data to Facebook and Google— often not disclosed in their privacy policies.

Treatment apps can share sensitive mental health data because they exist in the grey area of regulation, Torous said. “I think it becomes a buyer’s caution when you say ‘Well, I’ve told this app all my sensitive mental health information, I’ve given it access to my GPS, it knows where I sleep at night and where I work,'” Torous said. “You might really want to know who owns the data and what happens. “

When developers send users’ data to MixPanel or Facebook, these third parties can aggregate and commercialize users without their knowledge, says Quinn Grundy, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Nursing. As a result, there is no way for users to hold these companies accountable — or to prevent them from sending the same data to the quartet.

“Data is really the currency of the APP market,” Grundy said. “What this pandemic is doing is exposing the problems that have existed before. “

CNBC interviewed six mental health professionals who all agreed with these concerns about privacy and efficacy, especially as demand from the new corona virus surges. Most stressed that more transparency and oversight were needed in the area of digital therapy, but there was no consensus.

Grundy noted that the FDA is considering regulating clinical medical devices involving telemedicine, and that the Federal Trade Commission is working to crack down on misleading claims by APP developers. Overall, however, mental health apps live in a “very grey” area.

“There’s some room for regulation,” Torous said. “I think the flip side is that we don’t want to stifle innovation. We want to see what we can do when technology is at its full potential, but I think most people would agree that they don’t want to be mice. “