The 2nd Wave: The Role of Startups in the Impending Mental Health Crisis

StartingUpGood
StartingUpGood Magazine
5 min readMay 15, 2020

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Written by Leah Brody

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Startups have long played an important role in health innovations, and many have already shifted gears to help with COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and developing effective treatments for the disease. As we begin to understand many of the other immediate and longer-term health issues resulting from the pandemic, including mental health, it is clear innovative startups will play an important role. Here, we’ll continue to explore ways in which startups can make positive social and environmental impacts during these unprecedented times, specifically as it pertains to mental health.

In just a few months, COVID-19 has not only wreaked havoc on the global economy, but uprooted our collective sense of safety and wellbeing. As we face job insecurity, worry about the health of our loved ones, and manage the constant barrage of news and political discourse — all while socially distancing from our families and friends— it is no wonder that feelings of despair are on the rise.

A recent study conducted by Healthline through YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker confirmed that not only are Americans reporting significant and sustained increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the pandemic, but these feelings are here to stay.

“This is an incredibly challenging time. Never have Americans experienced a pandemic that has impacted employment, education, and the economy the way COVID-19 has,” says Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, MSN, MPA, a board certified geriatric and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, licensed psychologist, and member of Healthline’s Medical Affairs team.

And timing is critical, as our experience with past disasters shows that a rise in suicide often happens in the months after the immediate physical dangers of the disaster have passed. Startups, disruptive in their nature, are in a unique position to address this impending crisis and help mold this evolving field.

TELEHEALTH UTILIZATION

It comes as no surprise that telehealth is currently booming, as for many it remains the only option available for those not in need of critical or emergency care. Mental health startups offering virtual sessions have seen a big boost in utilization over the past few months.

Ginger, a San Francisco startup that uses messaging and video to connect those in need of services with certified mental health practitioners, has seen a nearly 50% increase in activity during February and March. At Talkspace, an online therapy platform, traffic has doubled since mid-March, and thousands of people are registering daily.

While these companies are bringing in more users than ever before, the challenge will be if they can keep them once traditional offerings, like in-person therapy sessions, return. But, if their services prove beneficial, convenient, and easy to use, retention seems likely.

ADDRESSING SOCIAL ISOLATION

A number of startups are also working to address a key component of mental health: socialization. Norwegian company No Isolation has been tackling loneliness via use of ‘warm’ technology products, including a robot for children and a simplified tablet for the elderly, and they’ve seen an influx of orders over the past few months. “We thought we weren’t going to produce anything more during 2020,” said Karen Dolva, co-founder of No Isolation. “We had to turn around and find ways of producing more units.”

A new app, QuarantineChat, helps quell boredom that can stem from isolation by connecting strangers via random daily phone calls. “We thought it would be like a very simple way (for people to) cheer each other up, or there’d be these moments that sort of mimic talking to a barista or talking to your neighbor,” said Danielle Baskin, co-founder of QuarantineChat. “But what happens is people are actually talking on the phone for a long time and becoming friends.” And usage has skyrocketed— currently, QuarantineChat is responsible for 2,300 hours of conversations each week across 183 countries.

Clearly, in addition to innovating traditional delivery of mental health services, there’s a growing opportunity for startups to address specific factors, such as isolation, that may contribute to depressive and anxious feelings.

MOVING FORWARD

Many mental health CEOs are reporting increased traffic and engagement, some at 15x month over month growth amidst COVID-19 and physical distancing efforts. The surge has posed an interesting dilemma for startups and funders alike — is this growth temporary, or does it reflect a more permanent change in how we approach (and deliver) mental health and wellness?

“The question becomes, is this a step function change or a peak that reverts back, and how far does it revert back?” said Jeff Crowe, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners. “How much do you expand capacity and do you raise more capital to take advantage of that? All those companies are thinking about those kinds of questions.” And it’s a tough choice — accept funds, potentially from funders who you haven’t formed a real relationship with yet, and that you might not even be able to realistically utilize right away, or wait (and hope) that another offer will come down the line?

In crisis, some start-ups are surging — and saying ‘no thanks’ to hungry investors

Although our future remains unclear, it is likely that mental health service provision will continue to evolve as people adjust to a new way of life, and also prioritize their own wellbeing. This disruption presents an opportunity for nimble startups to effectively, and creatively, address mental health care from a distance.

Only time will tell, and we’ll continue to watch this trend and monitor startup growth and activity in this industry.

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Leah Brody has nearly ten years of nonprofit and corporate responsibility experience, specializing in program strategy and implementation, employee engagement, and communications. She is a Senior Director at Changing Our World and a consultant to StartingUpGood. Contact Leah at lbrody@changingourworld.com.

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