How do you deal with frustration, depression, anxiety, or stress when you’re in quarantine, or in isolation? How do you see a therapist if visits are reserved only for emergencies? A mental health app can literally become a life-saver in these situations, both for healthcare providers and patients. So we thought it was time to put on our mental health app development hats and bring you the guide where you’ll find everything you need to start a mental help app or continue with your therapist app development.
I wouldn’t miss the chance of speaking to entrepreneurs with a mental health therapy background. How about you?
Table of Contents:
- Digital Revolution of Mental Health
- Top 5 Mental Health Apps
- Nice-to-Have Features from Top Mental Health Apps
- Mental Health App Benefits
- Monetization Strategies for Mental Health Applications
- Mental Health App Development Best Practices
- How to Build a Counselling App in 5 Steps
- Step #1: Choose the target audience and platforms
- Step #2: List possible features and run rapid prototyping
- Step #3: Code the solution for patients and doctors
- Step #4: Test your app
- Step #5: Release and keep updating the app
- Tech Stack for Mental Wellness Apps
- 10 Takeaways from Negative Reviews on Mental Health Apps
- Top Concerns Mental Wellness Applications Need to Handle
- Mental Health App Development Cost
- Our Experience with Mental Health App Development
Digital Revolution of Mental Health
The overall mental health solutions market keeps growing (a little over $5 billion in 2022): by 54% from 2019 to 2021, and it’s expected to reach $6b in 2023 according to Grand View Research.
Image credit: Grand View Research (all rights belong to Grand View Research, Inc.)
You’d think COVID-19 would have something to do with this trend, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Apptopia’s analysis, the top 15 mental health apps have demonstrated the same growth rate during the pandemic’s peak.
So, it’s safe to say that the trend for therapy uberization is here to stay even past COVID-19. Mark my words, the mental health industry is ripe for innovations.
Therapy applications count and types
Since there’s no clear market definition for mental health apps, their count across the App Store and Google Play varies from 1,435 to 10,000 to 20,000 depending on whether you count meditation and other self-help apps. The most common types of mobile therapy products include:
- Teletherapy applications
- Self-improvement solutions
- Mood & symptoms tracking apps
- Educational healthcare services
- Psychological therapy app development
If we look at various mental conditions that such solutions tackle, we’ll note the following areas:
- anger management, anxiety management
- meditation apps with breathing exercises
- drinking & eating disorder apps,
- motivation and general mental health apps
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- panic attacks, stress management
Of course, we’re just scratching the surface here as we can find all types of mental health software; from meal planners to mood monitoring (tracking mood swings) to even wellness apps with yoga workouts.
Key Facts on Mental Health Apps
- First-time downloads of the top 20 mental wellbeing apps in the US grew by 30% from January to April
- The majority of mental health apps (89%) lack clinical validation
- BetterHelp nearly 2x the number of app users seeking help with stress, anxiety, and other stress disorders
- US government has granted $5.5 billion in funds to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2020
- FDA has eased entry for counseling apps during the COVID-19 pandemic
- In the span of 20 years, between 2011 and 2030, the aggregate economic output loss caused by mental disorders is projected to reach $16.3 trillion worldwide.
Before discussing how to make a mental health app, let’s quickly review a few notable examples.
Top 5 Mental Health Apps
Today, the therapy apps marketplace is a Wild West. To address that, the professional community has forged several app rating platforms, such as PsyberGuide and ORCHA.
Try browsing these mobile app markets for inspiration before creating a mental health app. As they say, competitor analysis never hurts.
These rating platforms host a modest but well-vetted number of mental health apps ranked by credibility, transparency, and a few other traits. If we cross-reference these app-rating tools and pick the top 5 mental wellness products that make an appearance in all of them, we’ll end up with this list.
Happify is a self-improvement app that says its purpose is to make users happier. It tries to achieve that with mini-games and meditations, using a combination of mental health tracking features. For example, Happify calculates a happiness score for all users to improve their motivation and productivity.
Platforms: web / iOS / iPad OS / Android.
Monetization: in-app subscription and web subscription with varying payment plans.
Talkspace is a telemedicine platform and, in effect, a marketplace where patients can find a matching therapist and access online therapy through messaging and audio or video consultations.
Platforms: web / iOS / iPad OS / Android.
Monetization: subscription plans.
Woebot is a chatbot that serves as a perfect example of how you can create a patient app to help reduce anxiety and depression. In addition to AI-powered communication, Woebot also helps manage mental health by offering mood tracking and word games.
It’s interesting how Woebot’s AI engine uses its emergency features. For example, the word crisis triggers the bot to access whether the user or someone near needs urgent mental health treatment. These trigger checkers analyze users’ thoughts and feelings, try to identify their thinking patterns, and then provide relevant feedback to improve their self-confidence and track their mood ups and downs.
Platforms: iOS / Android.
Monetization: none at the moment (September 2022).
Related: How to Build a Chatbot in 2022
Daylio belongs to the category of self-awareness/self-assessment apps that strive to make users reflect on their mental health issues.
Daylio is a self-care journal with mood tracking and a happiness tracker. Users track their moods in relation to their activities and then review how different things affect their lives. Interestingly, this anti-depression app has become immensely popular among teenagers.
Take a closer look at Daylio if you’re developing mental health symptom tracker apps or mood journals.
Platforms: iOS / Android.
Headspace is a meditation solution with meditations for all kinds of activities and audiences. The application also keeps track of the user’s meditation practice and reminds them of scheduled sessions. The software also offers community features like group meditations, allowing participants to meditate together even at a distance, and includes a mood tracker.
Platforms: web/ iOS / Android.
Monetization : subscription.
You May Also Be Interested: How to Make a Meditation App Like Headspace
Nice-to-Have Features from Top Mental Health Apps
Let’s discuss some of the core features you might want to consider for a killer mental wellness app.
While a user profile may seem like a no-brainer, what we mean here is your application should feel personal. And the quickest way to achieve that is by having a profile with user details that affect how the app works, for instance, “what time do you go to bed/wake up”, or “how many times a week do you work out”.
Your solution should help patients book appointments with therapists. Ideally, the software will support calendars native to a platform, for example, Google Calendar or iCal. That also implies that there must be patient lists on the back end and the ability to set and track the length of therapy sessions.
Notifications and reminders help with the engagement challenge that every mental counseling app is bound to solve: People should consistently turn to these products to achieve tangible results. Patients can use them to track their meals and medications and at the same time help providers monitor patient progress and their stress levels.
Social networking features
Creating a live feed where users can share, comment, and vote on different topics can help create a strong community that will reinforce engagement for indivisuals to keep working on their mental health.
People are becoming really obsessed with quantifying themselves, and mental health is not an exception. To that end, dashboards are great for tracking our cognitive, emotional, and other health conditions.
Related: How to Build a Dashboard Web App
Before a dashboard turns into a colorful, engaging experience, though, users need to have an option to track their conditions. The less tapping or typing it takes, the better. As you understand, self-monitoring is an essential feature if you plan to develop an app to track mental health.
Of course, messaging is more relevant in teletherapy apps connecting patients with remote therapists for a live conversation or allowing them to exchange audio recordings. However, having a conversational UI design, e.g., a help chatbot, can go a long way for self-monitoring applications.
Related Article: Medical Chatbots: The Future of the Healthcare Industry
Audio and video calling
Like messaging, audio and video calls are more relevant in the context of telemedicine mental health apps. There are many things to consider here, but if there’s one thing you can focus on, it’s how smooth these calls are. You want a completely stutter-free experience for your users during video sessions.
AI and ML
Artificial intelligence comes hand in hand with personalization. The more your app learns about users, the more it can adapt to customer needs.
We can also apply AI technologies to add an intelligent chatbot for answering typical questions and helping patients with preliminary self-assessment. Imagine using an avatar-based chatbot like Sensely to establish trust and track patients’ mood, etc.
Finally, many of the top mental disorder apps include some gamification features. Mini-games help people with their cognitive skills training and relaxing their minds. Another area where game-like elements can help is assessment tests.
There are so many things you can add to your solution to help people develop healthy mental health habits. And it only depends on specific mental health disorders that you want to address in your solution:
- tracking allergies, diet,
- attention problems
- bipolar disorder
- LGBTQ bullying, suicide prevention
- disorder aggravation
- post traumatic stress disorder
For some applications, it’s critical to connect an app with smart sensors, for example, sleep trackers cannot function without pulling data from a sleep analyzing device. Another example would be recent studies suggesting that home-lab blood tests can detect not only patients’ moods but also schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and health issues.
Mental Health App Benefits
Today it’s common knowledge that healthy people are no longer defined by a healthy heart rate alone. Mental disorders can have devastating effects on people’s health, and therefore proper patient care is essential to keep a nation’s health in check.
It’s hard to imagine mental health applications replacing traditional therapy altogether. At the same time, there are undeniable benefits of using these products as temporary replacements for a traditional treatment process, which is why healthcare app development has seen a surge of late, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some advantages and handicaps of mental counseling solutions:
- Instant access (anywhere, any time)
Mental health specialists can help users of mental healthcare software anytime, without a hospital visit.
- Lower cost compared to face-to-face sessions
Minor mental health problems like heartbreak can be dealt with by applying online therapies or AI consulting found in self-improvement apps: e.g., self-help for anxiety management.
- More control over health data for patients
Customers not only get full access to the history of their mental health illnesses but can also check how consistent they’ve been with medicines.
- Easier to overcome stigma
Some patients feel more comfortable when they can get even rudimentary help from AI bots and only have to deal with humans in case serious intervention is required.
- Necessity to educate patients about new technologies
- Challenges related to lack of trust
- Limited confidentiality of sessions
- The amount of effort it takes to get the evidence-based status
Monetization Strategies for Mental Health Applications
Mental wellbeing solutions are no strangers to all the regular monetization options available for mobile apps out there:
- Paid premium version
- In-app purchases
- Mobile ads
- Freemium app model
However, if we look at the top-performing mental health apps, we’ll notice that most of them stick with subscription payments. That must have to do with the fact that today we’re living in a subscription economy, where the price of ownership extends over time. Apple itself admits that the subscription revenue model generates for apps more money.
What we do not see with these solutions, though, is in-app purchases for users to try out a mini-game, a session, or any other meaningful interaction or content. It seems like a no-brainer, and yet we haven’t noticed a single application do that.
One other thing to note is that often, when users subscribe outside the application, on a company’s website, they get 30% discounts that would end up in Apple’s or Google’s pockets. So it makes sense to find ways to bypass adding a subscription-based monetization method right in the app.
Also, note that advertisements (if you favor ads among all other monetization methods), should never interrupt the user experience. Other than that, the advertising business model seems completely legit. Think discreet advertising banners or something similar, and mix and match in-app offers.
Anyways, a monetization model will be irrelevant if you don’t follow the best practices. So let’s review them.
Mental Health App Development Best Practices
Before we take you through the steps of how to develop a mental health app, let’s talk about what will make your solution stand out.
From your app’s logo through onboarding and to main screens, the design is your primary tool for establishing credibility and trust.
- How smooth is the onboarding process?
- Is it immediately apparent to users what they can do in the application?
- Does the UX follow the platform trends, simplifying user interactions?
Answers to these and other similar questions will help you understand whether your application will win users’ hearts or leave them indifferent.
Speaking of appeal, remember that your solution needs to remain accessible to people who might be discouraged by overly vibrant or unnecessary dim design.
Read our guide to Healthcare App Design
Naturally, people will care about how well your product is protected because their personal information will be at stake. So I recommend that you take security measures implementation seriously from the get-go, like with other healthcare apps.
Besides that, you should always have an SOP in case security vulnerabilities are detected.
Doctor-Centric back end
Remember that therapists will also be using a web or mobile app to interact with patients and a separate solution to review patient data, track their progress, etc. Think dashboards’ realm.
These days, a customer typically switches between at least two devices throughout the day: laptops and smartphones. Throw in a tablet or a smartwatch if it’s a tech junkie.
And though it may be hard to pull from day one, your product should manage to follow the customer accordingly on all these platforms.
Internet of medical things
Never underestimate the data you can get from wearables and smartphones pertaining to physical activity of customers. As you’re well aware, a healthy mind requires a healthy body. Catching discrepancies in patients’ activity early on may help create a better treatment plan.
Mental health data should be able to flow freely from a mental well-being application to other mental health professionals’ psychiatry systems, e.g., EHR/EMR. You’ll never know what partnership opportunities will come knocking on the door unless you make patient data readily available for secure, anonymized sharing.
Related: EMR/EHR System Development Guide
Cautious use of AI
AI can make or break your therapy app. With this type of application, you can’t rely on training your healthcare machine learning algorithms on real patients. And there should always be an option for seamless human handoff. We know examples of AI engines that recommended a glass of bourbon to relax.
Finally, remind patients that your solution is not designed for an emergency (God forbid, suicide attempts) and provide appropriate contacts in the app for such situations. Emergency support features should be limited to a simple call button and maybe a short FAQ section and automatic notifications for family members and relatives. As for emergency messages, it’s not recommended unless you can provide uninterrupted 24/7 service with human support.
How to Develop a Counselling App in 5 Steps
Ok, now let’s jump into how you actually make a mental health app.
Step #1: Choose the target audience and platforms
Whether your app will target seniors, adults, or teenagers will impact your choice of platforms. It certainly helps to know more about your intended patients to design relevant experiences when making a mental health app. Some of the things to cover during research include:
- identifying the customer age group that the app aims to help
- competitor research to define the target audience’s expectations
- prepare a typical patient profile
Ideally, a few customers from your TA will partcipate in the next step and help you narrow down on the UX/UI of the solution.
Step #2: List possible features and run rapid prototyping
When it comes to custom developing an app, having a list of features and testing them with a prototype allows you to verify your app design ideas and ensure that the product will work as intended.
Creating a prototype first not only helps you save 10x the cost as compared to jumping directly into product development but can also significantly reduce how long it takes to build your app. Essentially, you get to validate your business idea with zero coding (the most expensive part of mental health software development).
Please note that developers should also take part at this stage to verify the technical feasibility of the prepared designs.
As an alternative, you can pick a no-code scenario at this stage and use stock interface elements to put together a prototype for testing. In this case, test users will review the software on their mobile devices.
Step #3: Code the solution for patients and doctors
This part will take the bulk of development time. We recommend following the Agile principles and going through interim tests with each iteration. Follow these tips to guarantee a timely delivery:
Read our guide on how to find and hire mobile app developers
- Use third-party HIPAA-compliant audio/video calling SDKs if you’re building a telemedicine therapy app
- Use other off-the-shelf components, like a chat with audio messages, to expedite delivery
- Setup the DevOps pipeline to free developers from spending time on non-essential tasks
- Follow cybersecurity best practices according to HIPAA regulations
At Topflight, we have always strive to lower the tech barrier (and lower the cost accordingly) by using available components. Over a few years, we’ve assembled a fine collection of ready-to-use libraries for authentication, scheduling, chatting, and other prerequisite features, common for most applications.
Step #4: Test
As we’ve mentioned, testing is an intrinsic part of the development process. However, this step describes a major testing effort that takes place before releasing the solution. You’d need to go through such things as:
- Functional testing
- Performance testing
- Compatibility testing
- Interface testing
- Unit testing
- Stress testing
- Security testing
Step #5: Release and keep updating
Once your application has been thoroughly tested, it’s ready to welcome users. A round of app store submission tremors (if you’re lucky or if you’re working with pros), and the app is out, hopefully, accompanied by a mobile marketing campaign.
Now it’s time to track its performance with the in-app analytics tools you implemented during development, address user concerns and requests, fix issues, and keep the application updated. Remember to set up a sound DevOps strategy to keep the maintenance costs down.
Once launched, the app will feed you user engagement data, provided that you added Google Analytics or similar service at the development step. This data will drive further mobile software updates by helping you identify new growth areas.
Tech Stack for Mental Wellness Apps
You’re absolutely fine with practically any technology stack for therapy app development. I frankly struggle to name technologies that would stand in your way. Just make sure your software development partner chooses technologies and frameworks based on your software product’s requirements.
One thing you’ll need to decide for sure is whether your solution will have a cross-platform architecture. If that’s the case, you can’t go wrong opting for React Native or Flutter. These frameworks provide outstanding data security capabilities, including encryption and other data protection tools. In addition, you get the flexibility to reuse code to support the web platform.
Native mobile technologies, e.g. Swift for iOS and Kotlin for Android, make sense if you plan to add on-device machine learning capabilities or use advanced features of the mobile platforms like AR/VR.
As for the app server, I’d recommend sticking with Node.js and AWS services. Also, think through the integrations required for the application. For instance, if your business plan includes integration with a CRM for data recording, you’ll need to build an API. Better yet, if your CRM platform already supports APIs for app data integration out-of-the-box.
10 Takeaways from Negative Reviews on Mental Health Apps
If you really want to learn how to create a mental health app that leaves your competitors behind, take note of these reviews left by frustrated customers.
- Check all login options. While social logins like Facebook or Twitter may work fine, some new authentication techniques like Apple ID may prevent users from logging into the app.
- Think through each user experience element: If the user doesn’t know why she earns points, there’s no reason to keep them.
- Find the balance between upselling a subscription and offering value to users.
- Make sure the design is stellar.
- Onboarding does matter.
- Check that security is not standing in the way of simplicity.
- Be clear about the pricing policy and then provide 5-star customer support.
- Weed out bugs, obviously.
- Make sure the product supports the latest mobile OS and all screen sizes.
- Include new stuff for long-time users to keep them engaged.
Top Concerns Mental Wellness Applications Need to Handle
People will need to know whether your app is backed by real-life research and if there is clinical evidence for its effectiveness.
We’ve noticed that solutions that have the best scientific base usually fail to provide highly engaging experiences. One other thing to mention is that some of these applications need to rotate content regularly to keep user retention high.
I agree that a mental health app can relieve the social stigma of asking for psychological help to some degree, but you still need to be conscious about copy and design of your application.
Mental Health App Development Cost
The cost of developing a mental health app varies depending on the scope of the project, the app’s type, and the number of platforms you are planning to support. If we are talking about a teletherapy app, its cost may start at around $140,000. If it’s a relatively simple mood tracking app (for following mood patterns) with self-monitoring features — $70,000. I’m certainly talking about an MVP version here- something you start with and build upon later on.
Like with other mobile software, we noticed that owners often forget to include the back end into the cost equation. You will definitely need a database and probably some admin area to manage content, etc. So make sure your app developers include this into their price when working on a quote for your mental illness app.
Here’s a link to our Vision to Traction System with a few pricing plans to choose from. It’s an ideal combination for when you have a clear product vision and lack a team to execute on it.
Related Article: Understanding App Development Costs
Our Experience with Mental Health App Development
To date, Topflight’s experience in mental health app development includes at least three projects that qualify as mental health apps: an AI coach, a chatbot, and a couple of meditation applications (one of which has already been released).
We built a content recommendation engine that helped individuals maintain emotional health and improve their time management, decision-making, and goal-setting.
On the user-facing front, you’d input your daily emotions via chatbot conversations, respond to daily questions, and like or dislike recommended articles and famous quotes. The solution does not come up with a diagnosis, instead working as a personal diary tracking mood changes. And the treatment team gets insights from user interactions through a connected admin web application.
Here’s a link to the case study where we talk about how our approach helped the client get into a business incubator.
Soberbuddy is a chatbot that helps people on the addiction recovery journey (alcohol & drug abuse). This software helps customers follow evidence based mental health practices focused on relapse prevention: cognitive behavioral therapy and mind-body relaxation techniques.
We inherited the project from a different team that was overcomplicating things by adding unnecessary machine learning blocks. On top of that, they didn’t find much success in helping the client monetize the product. By the way, since Topflight got involved, the project’s funding reached $1.25m.
After our intervention, Soberbuddy has achieved a 10% subscription rate, a 25% retention rate, and a close to 100% activity rate. We keep working on the software, trying to apply technologies unlocking additional treatment methods, for example, group therapy techniques.
Here’s the case study if you’d like to learn how we did that. The story will also teach you how to start a mental health app grounded in cognitive behavior therapy right on the first go:
- Raised: $1 million since partnership
- Boosted: retention by 300%, increased average engagement time by 40%
- Boosted: app store from 3 to 4.5
- Boosted: user count to 30,000
- Reduced: cost of acquisition by 50%
The mobile software offers quite unique meditation techniques: this mindfulness application helps customers practice breathwork while listening to their favorite music and following visual clues synced to the beat.
Users pick a tune by mood, genre, or artist and choose a color theme. The software then plays the song from the user’s music selection on Spotify and guides users through breathing sessions with an animation adjusted to the tempo of audio content.
Reach out today if you want to develop a mental health app or learn how your mental health app can shoot straight past the competition.
- A Guide to Building a Mental Health Chatbot
- Healthcare App Development Guide
- How to start a healthcare startup
- How to Create a Telehealth App
- How to collect healthcare data for your mobile apps
- Building Healthcare Apps that Improve Patient Data
- Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare
- How to build a doctor appointment app
[This blog was originally published in September 2020 and has been updated for more recent data]
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does it cost to develop a mental health app?
What tools should I consider to build a mental health app that relies on AI?
You may look at PyTorch, Dialogflow, RASA, Microsoft Bot Framework — there’s plenty to choose from.
Do I need to provide any certificates to list my mental health solution in app stores?
Not at the moment.
How long does it take to build an average mental health tracker app?
Does my mental fitness app require to be HIPAA compliant?
If it stores any protected health information, yes.
How do I build a mental wellness app that's engaging and personal?
Consider using AI frameworks and adding a chatbot that learns from discussions with patients.