Millions are battling mental illness — these entrepreneurs are trying to tackle it via technology

Spring Health and WoebotApril Koh, left, a cofounder of Spring Health, and Alison Darcy, the founder of Woebot.
  • Nearly one in five adults lives with a diagnosed mental illness, and estimates suggest that only half of these people receive treatment.
  • Two entrepreneurs, Alison Darcy and April Koh, have started companies meant to address mental-health issues.
  • Darcy’s startup, Woebot, is an on-the-go therapy chatbot and app that uses the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy to treat depression.
  • Koh’s startup, Spring Health, sells a digital mental-health benefit to employers.
  • Both Koh and Darcy are making waves in the mental-health space, and they were featured on Business Insider’s list of 30 health-tech leaders under 40 to watch.

In the age of social media and the internet, instant digital connectivity can paradoxically make us feel very isolated.

“People are a lot lonelier than we realise,” said Alison Darcy, the founder and CEO of Woebot, a virtual therapist that will talk you through a panic attack at 3 a.m.

Woebot is among multiple new companies looking to address mental illness. Another is Spring Health, a startup founded by April Koh that sells a digital platform designed to help companies improve their workers’ access to mental-health treatment. Both Darcy and Koh are featured on Business Insider’s list of 30 health-tech leaders under 40.

Over 44.7 million adults in the US live with a diagnosed mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s nearly one in five adults, yet there is still a significant stigma attached to discussing mental-health issues.

Estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment.

But new startups are pioneering a dramatic shift in how mental illness is diagnosed and treated.

“The fact is that a large number of people in the United States will never get in touch with a clinician,” Darcy said. “Around the world, it’s much worse than that. More than half of the population in the world does not have base access to basic healthcare. So we just have to do better.”

Darcy was previously a clinical research psychologist at Stanford, creating and developing treatments in a traditional, academic way. She left to build Woebot, which can deliver cognitive behavioural therapy that users can access on their phones or on Facebook Messenger.

The app checks in with patients every day, asks how they’re doing, and gives insights like, “Oh, you seem to be anxious every Sunday evening – what’s going on on Mondays?”

The conversational format, backed by a lot of algorithms, can give users in-the-moment resources and advice.

In a world in which social media can breed unhappiness and loneliness, “everyone tells you everyone else is happier, and everything you do essentially amplifies,” Darcy said. “That’s not exactly a recipe for inner peace.”

Woebot, Darcy said, is not a replacement for traditional therapy but part of an ecosystem in which people have more choice to decide how they want to go about their mental-health journey and when they should seek more intensive care through real-life therapy.

Koh’s Spring Health, meanwhile, takes a different track. The company is trying to integrate mental-health care into traditional benefits offered by employers and companies.

Spring Health is a digital mental-health clinic that can preliminarily screen for mental-health issues through an online questionnaire. It then suggests personalised treatment options and can connect users virtually with mental-health professionals in their insurance network based on their responses. This is meant to increase the ease of access for employees and their family members and shorten the time between diagnosis and treatment planning.

Spring Health also uses clinically validated machine learning to determine the best treatment plan for the patient. Koh saw her best friend cycle through seven antidepressants before finding one that fit her, and she wants to use tech to shorten the trial-and-error process.

Mental health, untreated, can be a costly endeavour for employers. Serious mental illness costs America $US193 billion a year in lost earnings, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Spring Health, in turn, is trying to make it make the mental-health care experience better and more widely available.

“The industry is incredibly opaque, so you’ll Google around for a therapist or psychiatrist and you’ll see a static list of providers with phone numbers, and they may or may not take your phone call,” Koh said.

Koh believes millennials are becoming more open to talking about mental-health issues, which will open the door to better solutions.

“Stigma is being greatly reduced, so employers feel much more comfortable around bringing in tools and solutions that could help their employees become more mentally resilient,” she said.

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