Startups have been reaching into the mental health space for a while now. It is clear that mental health is a serious problem, which makes the news frequently when a well known person shares their story of depression or celebrity dies by suicide.
Although research shows some issues from the overuse of technology and smartphone addiction, with a negative impact on attention spans, depression, and anxiety, some startups are looking for positive ways to use technology for good.
Modern Health, a startup focused on emotional well being, received $2.26 in seed funding. Their goal is to reach into the workplace addressing mental health problem early and selling their service as a “coach”, which may be less stigmatizing to some than having a “therapist”. A coach may also be able to reach people in the early stages before mental health problems become debilitating.
Shine offers free daily text messages with positive quotes and suggestions for actions to take to improve well being. Whether this is as effective as a phone call or an in person connection with a friend remains to be seen but 2 million people are already on board.
Fitbit, a tool for tracking activity, has found its popularity waning as smartwatches have become more in vogue. In response, it has entered the smartwatch space while also exploring implications for mental health care. Still in the R&D stage, Fitbit is testing whether activity patterns are indicative of a need for a check in with a mental health provider. This is another example of when technology might be utilized to catch mental health problems early on. With the acquisition of Twine health, Fitbit plans to add a coaching platform which includes the mental health part of wellness.
Even with an inanimate object such as a device, it may be hard for people to own up to mental health struggles because of the stigma that is still there. Like Fitbit, Wysa passively detects potential mental health problems from smartphone sensors. In response, it then engages the user in an automated chat. An always-on solution does not have to rely on the input of the user and can flag a problem discreetly. At the very least, it could serve as a short-term solution for those hesitant to seek help.
The reach of wearable devices seems to have no limits. It may help not just mental health issues, such as depression, but also help with the prevention and treatment of drug overdoses. In response to the number of British Columbians dying of drug overdoses in the last year, Sampath Satti began researching a wearable local alert system. A detection of slow breathing, which is common sign of an impending overdose, would send data to health authorities and volunteers who could administer Naloxone.
The verdict is not is for all these startups and proposed apps. The consumer base is there as being attached to a smartphone device is the norm in today's culture and people are more open to tracking devices, whether it is an activity monitor or utilizing their GPS. But for any new device or app to work, users need to commit to use it regularly and be comfortable sharing the data. Especially if it is part of an employee sponsored program.
The fallout from Facebook and Cambridge Analytics’s alleged misuse of data brought renewed attention to privacy concerns along with the influx privacy notices as a result of GDPR. The question remains - How is data being used with these devices and apps? Could the information people enter come back to haunt them one day if it is submitted to their employer, insurance company or even hacked?
Even with these concerns, seeing smart people motivated to use technology for good is promising. If they work with licensed mental health professionals and create their devices and apps based on solid research, they could fill a gap in treatment. A study by Psychiatric Services found that mobile health treatment can have as much of an impact as an in-person session, making treatment accessible for people who are in remote areas, or perhaps do not want to be seen driving to a psychiatrist's office.
And society talks about mental health more, businesses are realizing the cost of untreated mental illness in their workplace, both with lost productivity and losing employees who are no longer able to work.
The $146.83 million invested so in the first quarter of 2018 alone indicates that we are just getting started.
Tina Arnoldi is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Charleston, SC, business consultant, and freelance writer. She is a reviewer for PsychCentral (you can find her work here) and has a public portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com