Part 1: The Silent Pandemic
Mandatory social distancing, isolation, a lack of human interaction and socialization, and many other drastic social life changes have exacerbated a growing mental health problem in the US, particularly among GenZ and Millennials. Isolation is particularly harmful as people are left alone to stew over what feels like an endless parade of bad news. The New England Journal of Medicine agrees, stating “uncertain prognoses, looming severe shortages of resources for testing and treatment and for protecting responders and health care providers from infection, imposition of unfamiliar public health measures that infringe on personal freedoms, large and growing financial losses, and conflicting messages from authorities are among the major stressors that undoubtedly will contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness associated with Covid-19.”
The question here now becomes: if social distancing were to go away tomorrow, how permanent would these effects really be (i.e. is this a 2020 issue or a more existential issue that extends beyond the pandemic)?
Fortunately we have some data here, but the news is not generally positive:
- A recent study of quarantined people and of healthcare providers revealed numerous emotional outcomes that persisted even after quarantine was lifted, including stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, and boredom. Looming repeat lockdowns and a relative inability to access loved ones despite an initial “opening” have helped the mental turmoil persist.
- In the U.S., the national rate of anxiety tripled in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019 (from 8.1% to 25.5%), and depression almost quadrupled (from 6.5% to 24.3%).
- Further research from China found that 35% of people experienced mental distress during the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak and that these levels continued as the disease spread over the coming months.
- COVID-related burnout at work is already a billion-dollar problem and the fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and depression associated with COVID-related work burnout was actually captured beautifully by the TV show Mythic Quest (article on the episode).
- Relevant to the space in which we work, when First Round asked founders about which specialists they see regularly, female founders were nearly 3x more likely to report enlisting a therapist or psychiatrist compared to their male counterparts (42% vs. 15%). There might be some biases in the population used to reach this conclusion, but the data is compelling.
The problem here is that these are not new issues. Mental health in America is the silent pandemic we have largely been overlooking and allowing to spread unabated. COVID merely exposed and accelerated this macro trend and exposed flaws in the system that inhibit our ability to reverse the trend. The question, then, is where are the opportunities to make an impact through venture investing to help fix those infrastructure weaknesses? In our view, there are issues on both the demand-side and the supply-side that need fixing if we want to get this resolved (company building request: Lambda school for therapists…seriously hit us up if you know of someone building this…we’ll discuss further in Part 4 of this series).
In order to put the magnitude of this problem into perspective: 1 in 5 people have a diagnosable mental illness, and 1 in 20 people have difficulty leading their everyday life due to mental illness. This points to the holy grail of venture investments: the potential for a double-bottom-line opportunity (i.e. an opportunity that can provide significant financial and social impact).
You would think a problem this big would be high priority for our corporate and legislative leaders, but money talks: of the $2T CARES act passed in March, only about $450M (.02% of overall spending) has been allocated to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service (SAMSHA) — clearly, an afterthought.
In the next installment on this topic , we’ll talk about the drivers behind this issue and who’s really bearing the brunt of this problem before digging into the opportunities we see to help disrupt this space.