Developed countries have made some progress in addressing mental health in the past few years, but access to care and resources remains highly unequal around the world.
In 2015, mental health care was 50 times more accessible in wealthy countries, the Guardian reported.
And, according to a more recent study carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO), the rate of mental health workers in low-income countries can be as low as 2 per 100 000 people — despite the fact that 1 in 10 people is estimated to need mental health care.
While scaling up resources will be necessary to help address these worrying trends, digital technology and mobile health apps seem to offer a promising alternative in the meantime. In low- and middle-income countries, they can prove particularly useful in identifying health providers, as well as improving screening capabilities and overall access to care.
Here are five digital tools that are helping the world’s most vulnerable people get the mental health care they need.
Launched by the Psychiatric Disability Organization (PDO) in collaboration with app developers in the United States, TrustCircle addresses barriers to mental health care by helping people get access to psychiatric services no matter where they are in Kenya.
In an interview with Nation, Nakuru-based PDO Founder Iregi Mwenga said the platform was designed to tackle inequality of access to care in Kenya’s most rural areas, where he noted only 1 psychiatrist is available per 5 million people. Although Kenya has 88 psychiatrists, most of them only offer services in Nairobi, he said.
TrustCircle offers an alternative to in-person visits — people can get free, remote help from mental health specialists online without having to bear any travel costs. Once logged in, users can choose to remain anonymous while asking questions to specialists and taking clinically-validated tests for conditions such as depression, alcohol or substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The TrustCircle and PDO teams said in a press release that they hope to make this service available to the millions of Kenyans who need it, so that other countries in Africa can follow suit.
“I truly believe that our partnership, along with support from the government of Kenya, will set a model that can scale this effort not only in entire Kenya, but also in other countries in Africa,” TrustCircle CEO Sachi Chaudhry said.
The Erasmus MEGA project is an European Union-funded initiative designed to promote children’s mental health as part of the WHO’s Mental Health Gap Action Programme.
With the help of scholars from a consortium of nine universities gathered at the University of the Free State (UFS), MEGA developed a mobile health screening tool to be used in primary health care settings in South Africa, Zambia, and other Southern African Development Community countries.
The app allows primary health care professionals to increase their screening competence by helping them identify common child and adolescent mental health problems. When installing the app on their phones, a patient ID is generated to start the screening process. Health care professionals can then answer multiple-choice or closed questions to help them assess conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance use, suicide and self-harm, trauma, and PTSD.
“There is a high burden of mental health disorders among adolescents, but limited access to mental health care,” UFS team manager Ronelle Jansen said in a news release. “There is also a lack of knowledge about mental health care among workers in public health care settings… The MEGA project hopes to improve the delivery of mental health care to adolescents by supporting and educating primary health care professionals through a mobile application.”
In April, the UFS team carried out free training workshops to help health care professionals acquire knowledge on how to use the newly-launched app. Nurses expressed enthusiasm for the initiative.
YourDost is an online platform that provides counselling and helps foster emotional wellness in India. Like TrustCircle, it puts people in need of mental health care in touch with psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, life coaches, and career guides.
Although the counseling services aren’t free, YourDost provides a range of free self-care resources to help people gain a better understanding of their own mental health and well-being.
Through other tools such as forums and research-backed online counseling programs, the platform provides much-needed help to some of the 60 million people who have mental health issues across the country.
4. Mind IT
In response to growing concerns around suicide rates in Ghana, Mind IT was created to address mental health issues among the Ghanian population.
Although Ghana has only 18 psychiatric institutions to serve its entire population of 30 million, Mind IT uses innovative tech tools such as a toll-free short code. The tool, which allows users to answer questions related to their well-being, helps screen for mental illnesses and identifies affordable care that’s located nearby.
MindIT Founder Atsu Latey saidthe team is currently working on a mobile app to “provide immediate help for users during episodes of psychological distress.” The platform will also allow users to connect with the closest mental health care providers available to them, thanks to a built-in feature that uses Google Maps to locate nearby community nurses.
The goal of the project is to drastically lower the number of suicide cases in Ghana.
5. Snapchat’s Here For You Feature
Although not technically a mental health app in itself, Snapchat recently rolled out a new built-in feature to help young people in India identify mental health resources and support one another amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The feature, called Here For You, enables users to access a wide range of content by searching for keywords, such as “anxiety,” “depression,” “loneliness,” “suicide,” “mental health,” and “well-being.”
“We sped up the initial launch of Here For You in February because we recognized that in the wake of coronavirus, our global community needed support,” Snapchat Global Public Policy Vice-President Jennifer Stout said in an interview with Gulf News. “We hope that the resources we launch today better empower them to take positive steps forward when it comes to well-being.”
Aside from providing a sense of community, the content made available to users through the platform helps them identify signs of mental illness among their peers. With the assistance of clinical psychologists and mental health professionals, Snapchatters can get insight into common symptoms and learn about ways to address them through grounding and mindfulness exercises.