Mental health isn’t really a topic of discussion in India. In fact, it wouldn’t really be too wrong to say that it is taboo in all but a select few circles of the country. On the other hand, there are alarmingly few mental health professionals in the country. Some studies peg the number at one psychiatrist per 2 lakh people and others at one per 4 lakh! Needless to say, this is ridiculous! In fact, the situation is actually worse, because there are less than 10 psychiatrists, total, for some Indian states! For a country that spends a mere 0.0036 percent of its budget on mental health, we certainly seem to be in desperate need of help in dealing with mental health issues. Thankfully, it seems like some startups are doing exactly this.
While urban areas have a high concentration of mental health professionals – which is still way below the actual requirements, in rural areas, there are just none to be found. This is why some startups are trying to build platforms that can bring such professionals together, and allow people around the country to access their services. One such platform is InnerHour.
By providing counselling and therapy online that is easily accessible anytime and anywhere, Innerhour is trying bridge a gap that has been prevalent for way too long. The Innerhour team comprises of in-house therapists and healthcare professionals who cater to more than 6,000 users – of which about 1,000 are paying clients, while the rest use their free tier services. Users on the platform can choose a therapist based on factors like language (7 local languages supported) and years of experience of the therapist, after which their therapy can be conducted over chat, call or even video calls. They also plan to tie up with healthcare providers, schools and corporates to reach a larger number of people both online and offline.
YourDOST started off as a mental health blog when Richa Singh was deeply affected by the suicide of a hostel mate, who was worried she wouldn’t get a job in the upcoming campus placements. After seeing the quick growth and popularity of the platform Richa and her partner Puneet transformed YourDOST into a platform where users could actually seek counselling from experienced psychologists, life coaches, and psychiatrists. Since its inception in 2014, YourDOST has received a significant amount of funding, making it one of the more relevant names in the area. Help on this platform is available round the clock, and YourDOST deals with more than 2,000 counselling sessions daily.
One of the biggest names here, in terms of scale, would have to be GrowthEX. As a global counselling platform, they have more than 5,000 counsellors and 1,000 programmes, which they intend to increase to 25,000 and 10,000 by the end of next year respectively. The large audience and clientele provided by such platforms also encourage psychiatrists and mental health professionals to come on board and provide their programmes and counselling online. There are quite a few other startups that provide similar services while building a niche for themselves. For instance, Gurgaon-based ePsyclinic provides, among other areas, counselling for pre- and post-pregnancy depression as well as sexual wellness. But taking it one step further are startups that are harnessing new frontiers of technology to address mental health problems.
Unique technology platforms
If you’ve gone through the contents page or some other sections of this issue, you might have noticed a significant focus on chatbots in a couple of our other stories. Chatbots are growing a lot today and we decided it was time to dive deep into it. The world of mental health startups thought the same too, and the result was Wysa.
Based on NLP and AI, Wysa is a chatbot represented by a cute penguin that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques. She was launched last year in late October to track wellness, emotions, develop awareness and motivate users. Wysa’s strength lies in the ability to understand the feelings and mood of the user and guide them through appropriate exercises and meditation. On top of that, Wysa can account for all of this sensory data and your performance in the exercises to create a weekly report of how well you’re doing. Among the mental and behavioural health use cases, Wysa supports anxiety, smoking cessation, diabetes, disability support. For sensitive cases like where the user is having suicidal thoughts, Wysa suggests that the user talks to a real human being.
Wysa has seen a lot of popularity since its release and has started to be recommended by practitioners between sessions. Just like how AI and machines are gradually taking over physical healthcare and medicine, it looks likely that the same will happen to mental health too, although not as soon. As of now, AI can make therapists far more effective and can actually be there for people who do not have a social circle to rely on.
Thanks to these startups, the people who are in dire need of help with their mental health issues now have someplace to go, even if it is mostly online first. In fact, looking into the clientele of these startups, one can spot a distinct trend of people trying to deal with losing their jobs, mainly from the IT outsourcing industry. For such people, turning to technology as an aid to their mental health problems would, in fact, be a far less challenging task than approaching a real-life counsellor or psychiatrist. A 2013 study from the University of Zurich establishes that psychotherapy via the internet is as good as, if not better than face-to-face consultations. That being said, for delicate and sensitive cases, as mentioned earlier, it is always better to involve a human, face-to-face, in the process as well.