Why mental health apps bloomed in China in 2016

By Hailan Jia

Mental health counseling is in high demand in China in 2016, and it’s being helped along by an explosion of mental health apps.

There are an estimated 64 psychological counseling mobile apps that have acquired investment from capital markets, according to a newly released report.

The Peking University counseling center jointly published the report on China’s mental health at the end of November, in partnership with Jiandan Xinli, also known as ‘Simple Psychology’, the largest online mental health platform in China. So far the platform has provided counseling and therapy services to more than 100,000 users.

Huge market potential

Although Chinese authorities have not released any official numbers on how many people suffer from mental health problems, we can speculate about the market potential, based on the numbers from the WHO: globally, about 350 million people suffer from depression, 14% of total illnesses are mental illnesses, and 800,000 people commit suicide every year. 60 million people suffered from bipolar disorder. In developing countries, the percentage of those people who do not receive effective treatment is as much as 75%, due to a lack of resources for mental health.

Screenshot from Jiandan Xinli homepage

Public awareness

A drastic change in public awareness has emerged in China since 2008. That year, the Wenchuan Earthquake struck, causing 69,227 deaths and 17,923 cases of missing people. As survivors dealt with the trauma, a broader media coverage of mental health issues helped create wider public awareness about PTSD and other mental health concerns. This growing awareness led to a rapid growth in demand for professional counseling. The psychological institutions that emerged that year continue to thrive today.

According to figures from the State Administration For Industry & Commerce, before 2007, there were 133 registered mental health counseling institutions nationwide. Now, that number stands at 357.

Massive Chinese mobile users

According to the Ministry of Industry and Information, Chinese mobile users reached 1.3 billion people, and 686 million of these are 4G users, as of September 2016. Chinese customers are well connected to the internet, and they are very used to using online apps to access offline services.

Starting from 2014, mental health apps have been favored in capital markets. Chinese tech web data provider ITJuzi reported that after one single mental health service app acquired capital in 2014, the phenomenon grew to the point that 64 apps received funding in 2016.

The culture dilemma

In films and media reports, therapies are presented as resembling hypnotherapy or shock therapy, while there have been cases where patients have been taken advantage of financially, and sometimes even physically abused. These sorts of misfortunes have happened to people in real life due to their lack of understanding of mental health issues and treatment.

That’s where the online services apps come to help. They not only facilitate counseling services between the therapist and the client, but also help people understand basic knowledge, such as how therapy works, how to find a reliable therapist, and what the basic forms of treatment are.

Regarding feelings and emotions, Chinese users are more private compared to western users. In an anonymous survey from the report, only 22.38% clients would openly tell others that they were undergoing psychological therapy. It takes both courage and time for a person to go online to understand their own situation, and then seek direct counseling, whether face-to-face or over video chat.

(Top photo from Flickr.com)

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