The Rise of Mental Health Startups

It is usually quite easy to look around and recognize a broken leg, small cut, or common cold. However, when it comes to the seemingly invisible ailments that arise in our minds, there still remains a large deficit in acknowledging, treating, and prioritizing mental health. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide one in four people will be affected by a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. The wellbeing of the mind is a concern that spans across cultures, countries, and industries, yet still faces a significant amount of stigma. At the same time, treatment options continue to lack full accessibility for all those affected.

Mental health is an all-encompassing concept that addresses emotional and psychological health, which directly affecting our mood and behavior. It universally impacts all people and has recently come to the forefront of healthcare innovation and focus. There are a plethora of treatment options and support systems that have developed in the last few decades, including prescription antidepressant medication, cognitive behavior therapy, suicide prevention hotlines and alternative resources. However, when it comes to treatment, high copays or lack of coverage mean many afflicted patients face financial restrictions. Additionally, the lack of cultural awareness, adequate medication for certain individuals, mental health awareness, or funding for appropriate treatment options, further limits the positive effects of treatment.

Despite these constraints, there is still a remarkable amount of growth in one particular sector that strives to address treatment, research, and support in the mental health field: technology-centered mental health startups. This industry is currently experiencing rapid development through innumerable mindfulness or self-care phone apps, websites that provide therapy services, and unique algorithms or tools in computer science to research and develop new solutions for diagnosis or treatment. Apps have become the most accessible and popular form of mental health resources, since they are convenient to use, open to a large audience, and considerably cheap to use.

Calm, a meditation and self-care app, is one of the most vastly successful phone applications in the industry right now, having recently achieved a $1 billion valuation.

Michael Acton Smith, one of the founders of meditation app Calm, explained in an interview that he had noticed a cultural shift in 2015 where mindfulness went from being a strange, taboo subject to a crucial priority to indulge in. This shift marked a boom in the field of intersecting mental health with technological resources.

The resources offered for mental health address far more than only diagnosed, serious mental illness conditions. Several apps, such as Sophia — a service developed to address daily self-care needs through mood tracking, choose to expand their offerings to a universal audience by encouraging simple self-awareness instead of inflexible treatments based off of a specific diagnosis. I spoke with Caroline Marshall, the developer of Sophia and also an undergraduate student. Drawing upon her observations in the field, she emphasized the significance of emerging technology that tracks sleep, pulse, and other physiological attributes, since this data can be used to draw connections between habits and mood changes, while painting a clear picture of the factors that influence a person’s wellbeing.

Drawing these correlations between people’s behavior and their mental health status requires a very significant technological tool: artificial intelligence algorithms. As one of the most exciting and promising developments in the tech industry, AI has the potential to play a remarkable role in mental health. The World Well-Being Project used AI to comb through people’s social media posts and determine linguistic cues from text in social media posts in order to calculate a risk for depression. Using algorithms could revolutionize therapy by analyzing data and offering a diagnosis or treatment plan, as well as provide a new level of ease in sharing information.

Mental health, although already an important aspect of every person’s life on its own, is also financially significant to employers, as serious mental illnesses cost the United States $193.2 billion in earnings per year. By utilizing existing resources and tools in a creative way to address such a universal problem, tech startups have revolutionized the way we view and treat mental health while carving out a unique niche for themselves. The rigidity of currently dominating healthcare giants is being challenged by fast-growing creative ventures. With each passing day, significantly more research is being completed regarding mental health and new treatment options are being synthesized in order to truly build a community that thrives off of effective, accessible mental health care — a development that is only accelerating with the growth of this new, innovative industry.

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