- Freelancer Julie Peck felt herself slipping into pandemic-induced burnout, so she sought help.
- She chose Brightside, an app by a former 23andMe executive that combines psychiatry with therapy.
- Although she was able to easily get medication that worked, the service had its downsides.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Back in May, I started noticing I was having some issues. I have highly managed bipolar disorder, so I’m no stranger to “issues” – but this was clearly different.
At first, I had trouble completing assignments for work. Then, I lost interest in my favorite Netflix binges and found myself rereading the same paragraphs over and over again in books.
I wanted to see people. I was exhausted all the time and often stared out the window, longing for a change of scenery.
The effects of this situation were different from the average depressive episode: My near-constant consumption of COVID-19-related news was clearly bogging me down, as was my irritation related to how my community was handling its response to the pandemic.
These were new and unusual factors and far beyond my control. Now they were affecting my work, my personal well-being, and my relationships with my loved ones.
I paid $US150 ($AU204) to try the popular weight-loss app backed by investors like Tony Xu and Scooter Braun. It taught me better eating habits, but keeping the weight off was harder than expected.
I needed help, and with my busy schedule, I decided to take advantage of one of the many online services available to work at shaking my dark feelings.
If there’s one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it’s the proliferation of options available for mental healthcare online, although access to care for marginalized communities and those who can’t afford to pay for it still lags behind.
After evaluating the surplus of offerings available, I elected to go with Brightside
Brad Kittredge, a former 23andMe executive, told the San Francisco Business Times that he founded Brightside Health in 2017 after witnessing his father’s battle with depression and wondering why the US healthcare system wasn’t more helpful.
Kittredge got together with Mimi Winsberg, a former in-house psychiatrist at Facebook and now Brightside’s chief marketing officer, who created the basic tool that later became one of the backbones of the Brightside experience.
The company’s stated commitment is to deliver the kind of care it’d want its family members to have, and as of May, the company has secured more than $US31 ($AU42) million in funding toward this goal, including a $US24 ($AU33) million Series A round from ACME Capital.
For me, the main selling point was its offer to combine psychiatry with therapy
I’ve been in treatment for mental-health issues since the 1990s, so I’ve seen quite a few of these apps. It never really seems like they have a good, coherent grasp on the need to integrate psychiatry with therapy (but then again, neither does the outside world). It appeared that Brightside might be working toward a truly integrated approach, which is why I decided to give it a try.
The app matches you with a medical doctor, who will assess the need for prescription medication, as well as a therapist to develop a “personalized treatment plan.” You can choose a medication-only subscription plan, a therapy-only plan, or a plan that includes both, and charges are as low as $US45 ($AU61) per month.
I chose a subscription plan that blended both medication and therapy for $US299 ($AU406) per month, with the first month discounted to $US199 ($AU270). I’m now in my third month with the service.
One terrific value of this service that’s embedded within it and very well hidden is that all medications prescribed by its providers are $US15 ($AU20) – and believe me, for some mental-health-related medications, that could represent a significant savings. Just one of the medications I take is $US300 ($AU407) a month without using the GoodRx card.
Also, while I sought treatment for pandemic burnout, Brightside boasts that it treats anxiety and depression in a “full spectrum of related conditions” ranging from panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder to postpartum depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Some online services won’t accept those with diagnoses of bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, for reasons of which I am unsure.
After signing up, I went through a lengthy intake questionnaire that assessed my personal health and my mental-health background, and what I was looking to achieve
The questionnaire asked for general information such as my height and weight, as well as for mental-health-specific information such as what medications I was taking and what treatment modalities I’d tried before. It concluded by asking for specific outcomes I’d like to get from my treatment.
The algorithm then gave me a score on both my depression and anxiety, and those scores were displayed on my homepage, along with my medication and therapy assignment. The score doesn’t appear to be standardized to the DSM-5, just the company’s own particular scoring system that gives it the ability to track your progress. From the user’s side, having everything on one dashboard is convenient.
Based on the questionnaire, I was matched with a psychiatrist and a licensed clinical social worker, both of whom were licensed to practice in my state.
My appointment to see the doctor was within 36 hours of the time that I signed up for the service
My appointment with the therapist was within 48 hours. I was pleased with this response time and hopeful about getting some relief.
When I met with the doctor, he was understanding about my situation and demonstrated a knowledge of the extensive information I’d already entered into my chart through Brightside’s intake questionnaire.
He went through the medications I’d entered into my questionnaire to ensure that he fully understood what I was already taking and asked my opinion about how each was working. He was warm and personable, and he empathized with me about the feelings I was experiencing.
He asked me how I would feel about him prescribing a medication that I had taken once before, to add to my medication routine. I told him I’d be happy to try it.
I decided to have the prescription filled at the CVS down the street from me, as opposed to having it filled via Brightside’s mail-delivery pharmacy, and that was the end of our interaction.
Since we spoke in the evening, I was able to pick up my prescription the next morning. For some reason, I was a little suspicious about whether the prescription would actually be at the pharmacy, but I picked it up without any hitches.
I talked with the therapist via Zoom
She listened to me discuss my symptoms and what I wanted to get out of therapy. She also let me know that Brightside’s methods are based on cognitive behavioral therapy, and she outlined the therapeutic program, which is structured around 10 interactive lessons, a self-guided, computer-based program that you progress through at your own pace.
At the end of our session, she told me that our next meetup would be in a month, which was a surprise to me. I’d previously read “unlimited access to caring providers” on Brightside’s homepage, and I envisioned that I’d more or less have an always-on Zoom connection with my therapist – not so, I was learning.
To be fair, the text messaging with my therapist was, in fact, pretty much always on. And it doesn’t say anywhere on the Brightside site that you’ll be able to contact your Brightside providers via video chat whenever you feel like it.
But be forewarned that the service is self-directed – which is, incidentally, in line with the price – so if you’re looking for something to deliver more of an up-close-and-personal experience, this isn’t it.
I think technology is the way of the future when it comes to delivering mental healthcare. It cuts through barriers of cost and accessibility. But in a lot of ways, we’re just not there yet.
As a case in point, I got a note from my therapist shortly before billing was to go out for the second month of my subscription to Brightside that she would no longer be with the service. It was a lovely note, but this is a red flag for me: As with choosing a hairdresser, you don’t want to chair-hop from therapist to therapist, even if it’s online.
Subscribing to Brightside was definitely worth it to snap me out of my burnout for the psychiatrist appointment alone
The appointment was quick and easy, and it produced a prescription that has been successful in providing relief.
Whether I’ll continue with the subscription for the medication management alone or discontinue it and leave that function to my primary-care provider remains to be seen.