The demand for mental health apps is growing each year, but given the sensitive nature of the matters they address, building one is no cakewalk. In this article, we share our knowledge and experience gained from creating an app to help people with mental illnesses. If you’re interested in such an endeavor, read on for advice, recommendations, and challenges.

The importance and place of mental health

In recent years, mental health has been at the front and center of public attention. And the pandemic has certainly added to the already great stress we live under. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of adults experiencing anxiety and/or signs of depression quadrupled in the US during the pandemic.

Topics related to mental health cover full spreads in magazines; celebrities talk openly about mental health struggles. Countries including Australia and the United Kingdom are introducing policies to tackle mental health issues.

All this considered, it’s of little surprise that the demand for mental health professionals is growing faster each year. But while it’s important to visit a therapist when one’s mental health is deteriorating, in-person treatment isn’t the only option. Mental health apps can be of great help too.

Why mobile apps?

Between 2014 and 2018, the demand for mental health apps in the UK increased 566%, according to onefourzero. That was before the pandemic. A more recent study by Acumen Research and Consulting forecasts the mental health app market to reach a value of $3.7 billion by 2027.

Why are mental health apps so popular today?

While recognition of the importance of mental health is growing, many people are still reluctant to visit a therapist. Reasons can vary:

  • Inability to pay for lengthy therapy
  • Lack of time to visit a therapist for regular sessions
  • Lack of flexibility and the need to adjust one’s day to fit in sessions
  • The challenge of finding a good therapist
  • Limited access to therapists in some countries

Stigma-related reasons:

  • A belief that therapy is for lost causes and “crazy” people
  • Fear that someone will know and mock
  • Distrust that a therapist will not disclose mental health information
  • The discomfort of talking to a stranger about deeply personal issues

Mobile apps solve most of the problems described above, at least partially. The use of mental health apps certainly adds to flexibility and eliminates the need to travel to a therapist’s office. It’s also easier to use an app discreetly than it is to hide visits to a counselor.

Most standalone apps deal with four common mental health disorders:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder

At budding stages, these disorders can be managed without a therapist’s help. Apps can be great for this.

Let’s see what the mental health market has to offer.

Types of mental health apps

Mental health is a broad category, and no app can claim it covers all things related to mental health. Nor should any app do so — too much information and functionality makes any service, be it an app or a website, clunky and difficult to use.

Instead, it’s more convenient for users and developers alike to build mental health apps within various categories. Categorization helps customers find fitting solutions faster. We can separate mental health apps into the following categories:

Educational resources

Self-assessment apps; online libraries with mental health-related publications

Mental health trackers

Apps that monitor users’ moods, sleep, habits, and symptoms

General purpose self-help apps

Apps to deal with stress and mild anxiety; meditation and mindfulness apps

Mental disorder self-help apps

Apps focused on alleviating symptoms of one or more common mental disorders

Teletherapy apps

Apps that bring offline therapy sessions to online spaces

Therapy supplement apps

Trackers and self-help apps targeted at treating disorders when a therapist is involved (can give therapists access to a user’s data)

Apps connecting patients

Apps resembling social networks or forums where people with mental health problems can share their experiences and find peers

It’s possible — and even encouraged — to combine categories. Many popular self-help apps combine features from two or more categories. For example, meditation apps like Calm and Headspace include mood trackers. Disorder targeting apps like PTSD Coach often include ample educational resources.

However, everything is best in moderation. When planning to make a mental health mobile app, keep it user-friendly and don’t overload users with unnecessary data and functionality.

How to make a mental health app

How to make a mental health app

Throughout our years of work, we’ve formed a proven way to make a mental health mobile app. Here are the main steps from an idea to a successful launch, as well as some caveats pertaining to the healthcare industry that you’ll need to be aware of.

Step 1. Form a clear vision of your mental health app idea

When creating a mental health app, it’s important to have a clear idea of what kind of app you’re planning to build. You can begin by answering several simple questions:

  • Is mental health the primary problem the app solves, or is it a secondary problem?
  • Will your app be for a specific category of users?
  • Will your app tackle a certain mental health issue, or will it be a general-purpose app to keep one’s healthy mind in shape?
  • Will you create a standalone app, or will it complement in-person therapy?

What kind of app are you thinking about?

Do you want to create a digital library, an assessment app, or an app that will actively help patients through features like meditation, mood tracking, and affirmations to boost self-confidence? Or will you create a teletherapy app?

Read more: Telemedicine Platform Development

Is mental health the app’s primary focus?

There are apps that deal with specific physical issues — addictions, disabilities, chronic illnesses, rehabilitation — that offer, among other things, functionality to treat the mental side of things. Usually, these apps offer mood trackers, sleep aiding functionality, and/or meditation as a supplement to dealing with the main physical issue, to help users form healthy habits, and so on.

Who is your app's target audience?

Understanding your target audience is vital for finding market fit. Certain mental health issues can be pertinent to certain groups of people. You can create a mental health app for children, youth, elderly people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and so on. Or, alternatively, you can target the general population.

Does your app target a specific mental health issue?

Techniques to deal with disorders vary. When you build a mental illness app, you can choose a specific disorder to focus on, or you can provide help for multiple disorders and let users choose what they need help with.
There are also apps that help healthy people deal with everyday stress and burnout so that it doesn’t escalate into a full-blown issue like depression.

Is yours a standalone app?

Severe conditions require a specialist’s help, but an app can still be used as a supplement. Apps that track medications, moods, and habits can be used between therapy sessions or during breaks. These apps, if developed as therapy supplements, can offer therapists access to a patient’s data (with the patient consent).

Standalone mental health apps, on the other hand, are used independently, with or without personal therapy, and the data in such apps may be disclosed by users at their sole discretion.

Step 2. Conduct competitor and market research

Conduct competitor and market research

There are about 20,000 mental health apps across app stores. It’s not the biggest segment of the mobile app market, but nonetheless, there’s tight competition. To learn how to make an app for mental health, one of the essential steps is to look at how others have succeeded and failed.

It’s not necessary to study all 20,000 competitors, of course. Usually, it’s recommended to research the most successful apps in your niche, though it might be useful to check out several apps that failed, as they might offer valuable lessons.

Competitor analysis will allow you to define best and worst practices in your niche.

For mental health app development in particular, it will also be useful to look for reviews by medical professionals. One place to do that is One Mind PsyberGuide, a platform where psychology and psychiatry specialists review and rate apps. Reviews on this and similar platforms will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of popular mental health apps.

Besides competitor research, market research will help you define and better understand your target audience, define your unique value proposition, choose a monetization model, and prioritize feature development.

Step 3. Create a business plan

A business plan is a summary of the research you’ve conducted to make a mental health app. Writing a proper business plan will help you get a clear picture in your head of what you want to build and how you want it to perform.

You’ll probably introduce changes to your business plan as you go about building your app, but it’s important to have as full a picture as possible before you start. This will reduce the number of trial-and-error mistakes, shorten the time to market, and lower the cost to develop your mental health app.

Step 4. Find developers

If you’re building an app from scratch, you’ll need to find:

  • Android and/or iOS developers
  • a server-side developer
  • a UI/UX designer
  • a quality assurance specialist
  • a project manager

You can find separate freelancers, or you can hire a full-stack team from a mobile app development company.

However, keep in mind that medical apps are tricky in ways that involve more than just technical expertise. There are legal pitfalls unique to mobile apps in the healthcare sector, recommendations from health specialists, and requirements from health authorities regarding app functionality. This is why we recommend hiring specialists with experience in health app development.

Further reading: How to Outsource Mobile App Development

Step 5. Build an MVP

Launching a minimum viable product (MVP) allows you to pursue the following objectives:

  • Save costs
  • Acquire your first users
  • Test the application on users who aren’t developers
  • Earn early revenue
  • Enhance brand recognition before the full launch

Being an abridged version of an application, an MVP is cheaper and faster to build, and launching your app with a promise to expand and upgrade it can help you generate some revenue and build brand recognition online. This revenue can go into further development, and online recognition can translate to offline clients if you have your own practice.

However, the biggest benefit an MVP brings is the opportunity to get honest feedback from users interested in the app. Feedback is even more important when creating an app to help those with mental illnesses. For people who come to your app to feel calmer, a disruptive UX or laggy performance will be even more of an issue than it might be for the average user in other types of apps.

Read more: Creating an MVP: The Art of Small Steps

Step 6. Monitor and analyze performance

Whether you decide to release an MVP or a full product, the launch is just the beginning of your app’s journey, and there’s a lot of work ahead.

Constant updates and improvements are a must for a mobile app to stay relevant. And to create updates that work well for your audience, you’ll need to know what it is that keeps users returning or pushes them away.

By monitoring users’ engagement metrics, you’ll be able to make better decisions about prioritizing features, changes, and sales strategies.

Step 7. Launch your marketing campaign(s)

Launch your marketing campaigns

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of marketing for app performance. Even if your mental health app is one of a kind — maybe it uses an innovative approach or offers a unique combination of features — to attract users, you’ll need to market it wisely.

There are a number of ways to market your mental health mobile app:

  • Social media advertising
  • App store optimization
  • Content marketing on your company’s blog and on third-party platforms
  • Press coverage in relevant publications
  • Hiring influencers to advertise your app
  • Noticeable presence on social media and mental health forums

Depending on your target audience’s behavior and expectations, your marketing team will help you choose an appropriate strategy and marketing channels for the best exposure.

Step 8. See that your mental health app is profitable

It’s a great idea to build a mental illness app to help people in need. However, unless we’re talking about nonprofit-owned social apps financially backed by governments, to keep afloat, an app needs a return on investment.

How to develop a mental health app that’s profitable? One way is to use unit economics to drive profit-aimed changes.

Unit economics is a tool that helps you calculate the value that a single “unit” — any quantifiable item — has for a business. In terms of mobile apps, a single user/customer is considered a unit. This unit’s value can be found by dividing your customer’s lifetime value (LTV) by the customer acquisition cost (CAC).

E = LTV / CAC

Where

CAC = Cost of acquisition campaign / Number of customers acquired from the campaign

LTV = Average cost of conversion * Average number of conversions * Average customer lifetime with the app

If your app’s CAC is less than its LTV, it means you’re doing well. If CAC is above LTV, it means you need to change something. With the help of unit economics, you can, at the early stages:

  • assess your mental health app’s potential sustainability
  • forecast your app’s profits
  • optimize the prices of paid in-app content
  • determine optimal promotional strategies for the best profits

Step 9. Test

Testing can’t be overlooked, especially when we’re talking about apps for issues as sensitive as mental health. Test the user experience, user interface, content — everything. Proper testing will result in fewer bugs and changes, will shorten the development time and cost, and will greatly improve your reputation as a service provider.

Step 10. Continue to improve your app

Without upgrades and updates — and without following innovations and trends — any app will sooner or later sink into oblivion. That’s why it’s important not to abandon your mental health app after launch but to continuously monitor its performance, make data-based changes, and introduce updates to keep users engaged.

Design recommendations for mental health app development

Design recommendations for mental health app development

Mental health specialists have recommendations for user interface and user experience design.

The main purpose of mental health apps is usually to calm users. Mental health episodes can be activated by triggers and irritants; therefore, when you think about how to make a mental health tracker app, it’s of the utmost importance to consider users’ possibly fragile states.

The user experience needs to be smooth and intuitive, and your app must be easy to navigate. Although intuitiveness is important for any app, when dealing with mental health disorders like anxiety, for example, the value of intuitiveness is higher than ever.

As for the user interface, while visual content can be just about anything from photos to drawings of people or plants or animals, if we look through popular mental health apps, we can see that most of them use soothing colors in their interfaces: shades of blue, muted greens and oranges. Mental health apps are never red or black and white. Mental health specialists also advise avoiding high-contrast interfaces, sudden pop-up messages, and loud notification signals in order not to agitate users.

Audio content can be varied. Some meditation instructors go for loud affirmations to motivate their followers. However, a more traditional approach is to use calming music and quiet speech in mental health apps to make users relaxed.

You should also pay attention to the loading time and optimize content to make it load as fast as possible.

How do mental health apps make money?

Continuous development, maintenance, marketing, and support all cost money. There are several ways to make this money:

  • From your related business activities
  • Government funding
  • Donations
  • Funding from professional investors
  • ROI from the app itself

In this article, we’ll talk about the last option — ROI from the app itself.

These are the monetization options you can choose from for a mobile app:

  • Ads
  • Subscriptions
  • In-app purchases
  • Freemium
  • Paid downloads

Taking into account the specifics of mental health apps, ads are not recommended for monetization — they’ll disrupt the experience and might agitate users.

In-app purchases can also be annoying for users if there’s a lot of content and everything needs to be purchased separately.

Paid downloads is a valid option if your business is directly involved in providing mental health therapy and you already have a reputation as well as ways to gain app users from among your clients.

The two most-used monetization models, however, are subscriptions and freemium.

Subscription-based apps typically come with a trial period during which users have access to all content. With popular mental health apps, the trial period is up to two weeks.

The freemium model is where some content is free and access to the full scope of content is paid by either a subscription or a one-time purchase.

Subscriptions offer a smaller but continuous flow of money, whereas one-time purchases provide more money at once but not over time. Your business model will dictate what monetization model is best.

Features to include in a mental health app

Depending on the type of mental health app you’re building, some features below might be more important than others.

Onboarding

It’s important to carefully walk your users through the app, explaining the functionality briefly but clearly. You might want to consider adding a bit of emotion and care through animated “assistants,” and you can hire a specialist to write your instructions in a way that takes into account your users’ specific needs.

User profile

A user profile is where shortcuts to important things like user data, user progress, most used features, and settings should be.

Settings

It’s vital for users of mental health apps to be able to tailor those apps for the best experience. For example, users should be able to adjust the volume and frequency of notifications, choose a theme (if you offer themes), and so on.

Notifications

Push notifications can remind users of planned tasks, or they can gently probe users to launch the app by asking how their day is.

Meditation

Meditation and mindfulness are practices often recommended for people with anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks. You can add audio for guided or unguided meditation to your app’s functionality.

Mood tracking

For people with depression, bipolar disorder, or mood disorders, a mood tracker is a useful feature. By tracking moods, users can gain some control over their disorders and possibly address mood-altering triggers.

Journaling

Journaling often goes hand in hand with mood tracking, and for some people, it can replace meditation as a calming exercise.

Sleep tracking

Issues with sleep are frequent in people with all kinds of mental health problems. You can add a simple tracker or an advanced one where users will be able to log possible reasons for sleepiness or insomnia (e.g. medication, agitating activities).

Medication reminders

If your app deals with mental health disorders that require medication, it will be beneficial to add customizable reminders for users to take their meds.

Trigger checkers

Writing down triggers that cause anxiety, panic attacks, or depressive episodes will help users in dealing with their disorders.

In-app human support

Many apps benefit from chatbots that resolve issues, but for people struggling with mental health, earnest and professional human support is a better solution, since the human psyche is too complex for bots to comprehend.

Community features

Peer support can be the greatest help a person encountering an episode or dealing with the aftermath of one can get. Knowing they’re not alone goes a long way in helping patients persevere.

Gamification

Simple games can help take users’ minds off problems, and switching attention away from triggers to an eye-pleasing game can calm users. However, we advise approaching gamification with caution: Competitive games or leaderboards can have detrimental effects on users’ moods.

Affirmations

Motivating quotes and affirmative statements can boost a person’s mood and help battle depression and anxiety.

Favorites

Allow users to favorite features or content they use often — having access to them from the profile or home screen will shorten the user journey and improve the user experience.

Matching patients and therapists

For teletherapy apps, you’ll need functionality to match users with therapists based on the issue a user faces and therapists’ qualifications, prices, and timetables.

Dashboard for therapists

For apps that connect therapists with patients, a therapist dashboard is a must. It will need a separate set of features, too. Or it can be a separate app connected to the patient app via the back end.

Sharing

Sharing moods and/or activities to social networks or messengers is similar to community features in that it creates the feeling of belonging and prompts people who care about a user to offer help.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Machine learning can make your mental health app more appealing to users, since it can offer activities and content customized to users’ habits and preferences.

Admin panel

To add or change content and moderate activities, you’ll need an admin panel. It’s usually in the form of a simple web page.

This is a more or less generalized list of features that might be useful for a mental health app, and your development team can create a tailored list for your app to serve your specific target audience.

What to pay extra attention to when building an app for mental health

What to pay extra attention to when building an app for mental health

Health-related apps — and mental health apps in particular — go through a strict verification process to be allowed in app stores. Here are the things you’ll need to take into account for your mental health app to have a successful launch.

GDPR (or similar) compliance

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a set of regulations pertaining to personal data security. These regulations set rules for personal data storage, processing, and transfer.

Any business that operates in the territory of the European Union or European Economic Area needs to comply with the GDPR — regardless of where the business is registered and physically located. If your app isn’t intended for use in the EU and EEA, you still need to check for similar regulations that may be in place in areas where you’re releasing your app. For example, the state of California has its own Consumer Privacy Act that’s similar to the GDPR.

HIPAA compliance

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is US-based legislation that protects the confidentiality of people’s digital health and financial data that is available to healthcare providers and intermediaries (data storage services, lawyers, etc.). In the US, failure to comply with HIPAA will result in considerable fines and possibly lawsuits.

To comply with HIPAA (or similar legislation in other countries), choose software developers experienced in cybersecurity and knowledgeable in data protection technologies and innovation.

For example, if you’re implementing video/audio calls or messaging in your teletherapy app, your developers should use encryption protocols.

The United States Federal Trade Commission has an interactive tool to help app developers create apps that comply with this legislation.

Learn more about encrypted messaging: How to Make a Really Secure Messaging App Similar to Signal?

Clinical basis

Only about 30% of existing mental health apps reportedly took input from therapists. However, most mental health apps on the market are meditation and mindfulness apps that don’t necessarily require strict medical data. If you’re making an app to treat severe mental health disorders, it’s recommended to make it evidence-based.

Health-related apps should be based on research and medical data so as to not cause harm to users’ health. Mental health apps aren’t exempt from this rule. If you’re not a mental health specialist or a therapy business provider yourself, we strongly recommend consulting with professional therapists as to what clinical approach to use for your mental health app, what content to offer, and so on.

Besides making your app safer for users, giving it a clinical basis will add to your app’s credibility and enhance users’ trust.

Cost to make a mental health app

In this article, we’ve lumped together multiple kinds of apps for improving mental health. Saying there’s a certain price that fits all of them would be lying. However, we can offer approximate development timeframes and the required specialists — the two factors that affect costs the most.

The team you’ll need to develop a mental health app consists of:

  • Project manager
  • UI/UX designer
  • Android developer*
  • iOS developer*
  • Backend developer
  • 2–3 quality assurance specialists
  • Marketing specialist**

*You can choose to develop for one platform first and add the second when your first app becomes successful and starts bringing in ROI. A project manager can suggest the best option after thorough research.

**You can handle marketing yourself, hire a third-party marketing specialist, or entrust marketing to your development company if they offer such service.

As for the timeframe, it will depend on the number and complexity of the features you choose.

In our experience, a mindfulness app with complex feature like tracking, analysis, audio content, and a custom admin panel can take about a year to create and cost anywhere from $80,000 and up. We’re talking about a full app, however, and not an MVP.

A simpler self-assessment app can be built in two to five months (depending on the assessment complexity) and will, therefore, cost way less.

Mind Studios’ expertise

Mind Studios has ample experience creating applications to improve mental health — in particular, through mindfulness practices, meditation, and yoga. We’ve built more than one such app for our clients, and all the apps we’ve built in this niche are unique.

To learn more about mental health app development and our expertise in this niche, drop us a line via a simple form.