Technology Innovation in Mental Healthcare
We all know the statistics. One in five Americans will experience a mental health issue, and one in twenty five Americans will go through a severe mental illness in a given year. To make matters worse, 56% of Americans lack access to effective, or any treatment.
With the recent light of the news from Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, mental health is becoming an increasingly important and less stigmatized issue. Numerous reports have been published in regards to the detrimental effects technology can have on one’s mental health, especially the overuse of social media, which makes us more disconnected, distracted, and lonely.
Generation Y and Z are hit the hardest, with mental illness issues skyrocketing and the population of at-risk individuals similarly rising. People experiencing high-stress levels, lack of sleep, eating disorders are rising. Additionally, there is a shortage of licensed professionals and underfunded university counseling centers even though more students are requiring professional help in mental healthcare.
Access to Mental Healthcare
In terms of access to healthcare, 56% of Americans do not get the treatment they need, while 8% of youth do not have access to mental health services through their insurance. Systemically, there is a myriad of factors that lead to low access to healthcare. 47% of adults are estimated not to receive treatment due to costs. 14.7% of Americans who need access to mental healthcare remain uninsured. There still exist many barriers for users to receive the professional help they need.
Delivery and Treatment for Mental illness
Although more reports have been published in the media regarding mental health, there is still a stigma surrounding receiving help and going to therapy. Various telemedicine companies and startups working with employers are making it easier for those who need help to get it.
Diagnosis of Mental Illness
Many adults remain undiagnosed and do not receive enough help they actually need. Depression and anxiety often find their roots in children (50% of those diagnosed with mental disorders show signs of the disease by age 14), but these people are often not diagnosed or treated in time until the illness progresses to a more serious issue that requires longer treatment.
People at risk for mental illness exhibit various risk factors, such as childhood trauma, struggles with substance abuse, and other features. However, people are typically not aware of these factors. People don’t know how to properly intervene and are surprised when someone announces that they are depressed or undergoing treatment.
We spend up to eleven hours a day looking at screens, whether it’s our smartphones, laptops, or other smart devices. The data that we are able to collect from these devices is powerful for improved treatment and prediction. Technology can reverse the harm it caused, and enable mental healthcare to be delivered and accessed in a way we couldn’t before.
Mobile Apps and Websites Enable Telemedicine
Mobiles phones have enabled teletherapy and telemedicine to optimize care delivery. Patients can now access therapy in the comfort and privacy of their home, their office, or where ever they are. This tackles the problem of stigma in school and in the workplace and enables users to comfortably access the care they want. Often, these telemedicine startups also incorporate a peer community aspect or a feature to directly speak to licensed professionals via a chat or video system.
However, the telemedicine market is currently oversaturated. It is likely that this market will condense in the near future through various startups’ mergers or ones that will drop out of the market. Only a few startups with active users and buy-in from corporate partners will continue to exist.
This is one of the largest teletherapy startups. It offers members confidential therapy with over 2000 licensed therapists for around 1 million users. It is also endorsed by Michael Phelps, which is definitely a helpful PR move.
7 cups offers text chat, video chat for online therapy and counseling. An user can connect with a listener (typically a counselor, not a mental health professional) immediately in a safe space or connect to strangers in their online community.
It offers a white label HIPAA-compliant teletherapy solution for users to access licensed therapists.
Wearables can Collect Data and Monitor Stress or Anxiety
There are several startups in the space, though the majority are focusing on wearables for fitness and wellness purposes, and less for clinical settings. Feel, Elyse 28, and Lief Therapeutics are startups in the space that sell direct-to-consumer wearables for tracking basic metrics such as heart rate and breathing for detecting stress and anxiety levels and milder levels of mental illness.
Another aspect of wearables can be very powerful in using them to collect data that may serve as biomarkers for the onset of a disease or a symptom of one. This is powerful for prevention and screening and detecting at-risk populations as care providers can reach them before they start to deteriorate and treatment becomes more difficult.
Lief monitors the user’s heart rate in real-time and uses a clinically proven biomarker - heart rate variability - to detect the user’s stress level. It also teaches the user ways to control the body’s stress levels through exercises.
A wearable targeted towards women as a jewelry piece, Bellabeat tracks the user’s sleep and mindfulness and even incorporates personalized meditations.
Another wearable for women, Elyse 28 pairs its user with a wellness coach that works with the user in every aspect of health from nutrition to physical health to mental wellness and stress management.
Using AI/ML for Detecting At-Risk Populations and Predictive Analytics
Various AI startups are using natural language processing to create chatbots, or scan the user or patient’s language to detect if they are at-risk or demonstrate any symptoms of possible mental illness issues.
A chatbot integrated into Facebook Messenger that checks in with the user daily, Woebot uses AI to “learn” the emotional profile of the user and uses cognitive behavioral therapy to create a personalized treatment. However, it is not a substitute for a therapist, and it explicitly states that.
Wysa is another chatbot that uses AI chat to build emotional resilience in its users.
Moreover, large tech conglomerates including Facebook also launched a new initiative that uses using proactive detection and natural language processing to scan posts for patterns of suicidal thoughts, send resources to at-risk users or their friends/family members, and contact responders to effectively intervene in time. This has a large potential because Facebook has the benefit of a lot of data.
Using Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to Treat Phobias and Anxieties
VR can be used effectively to treat and alleviate milder forms of mental health issues, such as conquering phobias. It can also help with meditation and stress by building immersive environments and using detection to treat anxiety and other more severe behavioral issues as well. VR is effective for cognitive behavioral therapy because everything the patient tries and experiences in a virtual environment can be tracked. Thus, therapists can gradually and artificially expose the patients to anxiety-inducing situations in a reproducible and controllable way, in amounts that they can safely determine and tweak.
Psious is a VR immersion therapy startup for mental health based in Spain, in targeting anxiety disorders and delivering mindfulness. Therapists can monitor the patients specifically and control the experience.
A VR startup that allows users to conquer their phobias through exposure therapy and engaging in other therapy experiences.
A seed-stage startup, RetinasVR built an anxiety management platform with VR technology to conquer social anxiety disorder, PTSD, phobias, and promote mindfulness, and is already partnered with Stanford, Kaiser Permanente.
Platforms and B2B Startups
There are a variety of other startups serving as more than a telemedicine or software tool company, and act as providers or platforms. Therachat is a startup that serves as a communication platform between therapists and their patients. It enables therapists to assign homework to their patients, assign them engaging activities, and communicate with them. This is an important space that is not over-saturated yet. There are also many startups delivering mental healthcare in B2B settings that are focusing on employee wellness and wellbeing.
Lyra Health works with companies with HIPAA compliance so employees feel comfortable accessing and receiving professional mental help. It caters to members, providers, and employers to create efficient programs.
Quartet Health targets providers, enterprises, and patients. It uses data-driven recommendations to identify patients more likely to have a mental health condition, and allows patients to access a network of mental health professionals.
What This Means for End Users
Various medical corporations including providers and payers are interested in investing or partnering with digital health startups primarily for their potential to drive down costs and increase the efficiency of treatment.
Providers of care include hospitals, provider networks, and individual practitioners. These groups typically consist of physicians and nurses, who are incentivized by helping the patients recover from their treatment and deliver great outcomes. Thus, a digital health product or program that increases patient adherence, engagement, and allows the patient to stay on track would be in the provider’s best interest.
Payers such as insurance companies, the government and companies hope to primarily decrease costs while achieving successful outcomes. If patients recover quicker by completing a digital therapeutic program or using a wearable device to track data, payers will be willing to pay for it. This is true especially for insurance companies who would pay for patients to stay healthy or recover from an illness before it progresses into a more costly illness to treat.
Patients want to be diagnosed and get their illness treated quickly while achieving successful outcomes. They want to get healthy or treat their bodies well.
Overall, there is a lot of excitement in this field, especially since mental health has become more spoken about in the recent year. However, various strategies are still being developed and implemented, and the aggregation of startups in the space makes it difficult.