With the stress of the global pandemic and its knock-on lockdowns, it is not surprising that mental health issues have skyrocketed. This increase of illness, combined with a disruption in related services worldwide, has brought the crisis to a whole new level. When it comes to mental health, Southeast Asia has already been dealing with its share of problems, and the impact of COVID-19 is likely to be felt for some time to come.
In 2017, Indonesia reported that 9 million people, or 3.7% of its population, suffered from depression. A 2018 national survey showed that one in seven people in Singapore had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. In 2019, the Vietnamese health ministry claimed that 15% of its 95 million people were mentally ill with stress.
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Since the onset of the pandemic, 69% of people in the world say they are more inclined to take care of their minds. As people worldwide seek to improve their mental wellness, Southeast Asia can be at the forefront of the mental health apps revolution.
Southeast Asia’s mental health crisis
In Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, the number of psychiatrists available is below 1.5 per 100,000 citizens. Many countries in the region allocate mental health facilities to their secondary healthcare system, meaning most citizens cannot access the care they need in public facilities and must meet specialists.
There was a marked increase in Google searches for mental health services in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia in the first five months of 2021. Meanwhile, studies show that people are more likely to open up about their issues on digital platforms, making social media, forums and apps an excellent resource for those having problems.
With 2020 seeing more than 40 million people in the region going online for the first time, there are now more than 400 million internet users in Southeast Asia, making it the perfect platform for accessing help. With more than 10,000 wellness apps available since 2019, this sector is prime for expansion and ready to fill the gaps of mental health services currently being experienced. The apps can reach a wider audience, are less expensive, and can offer personalised features. Here are some of the current crop of mental health digital offerings in the region.
Intellect is an app combining technology and human touch to help users talk with certified behavioural health coaches, work with licensed psychologists, or join self-guided programs to empower their mental health. It pairs clinically-backed protocols with efficient mobile-first delivery to eliminate the obstacles to access for global patients.
Vietnamese startup Mosia is the first platform in the country to prioritise mental health issues. It is a connection platform where users can express themselves and build quality relationships. Mosia uses a peer-to-peer model to connect people and help them share their daily challenges, find support, and connect with qualified counsellors to overcome mental problems.
Founder and Thai doctor, Kanpassorn was working in a rural area with only one psychiatrist when he launched Ooca in 2017 to offer accessible telehealth counselling. The app links people by video with health professionals and provides a free service to Thai expats dealing with the difficulties of living in foreign societies and cannot return home because of the travel restrictions.
Arooga, meaning “to care for” in Filipino, is an app aiming to give easier access to mental health care for those in need. It matches users with a trusted carer and the option of meeting the therapist in person or via video call for a chat.
Malaysian digital health app Naluri offers health coaching and psychological help by combining behavioural science, data science and digital design. With the app, users can connect to a team of health professionals such as health psychologists, dieticians, fitness coaches, executive coaches and financial planners.
User data security
Like most other apps, data security and the management of information is vital for mental health apps. With such sensitive material, users’ identities must be protected.
One study found that many mental health apps lack disclaimers about the information collected from users, and there is no governing body to look after and manage app development and availability. This is concerning and something that needs to be examined and fixed to protect confidentiality.
People relying on mental health apps should remember that they cannot wholly treat mental sickness and should not replace face-to-face therapy and medicine. As the global focus turns to mental wellness, Southeast Asia can lead the way in using technology as part of the treatment process by offering more convenient access to tools, resources and support.
As the region returns to a semblance of normality, the digital access to mental health and wellness that Southeast Asia can offer through its healthtech startups may just be the key to helping people through the recent upheaval of the pandemic.