Can tech disrupt traditional mental health treatment?

It’s undeniable that we are experiencing a mental health crisis in the UK. Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 years in England and Wales, and an online poll of 4,619 people found that, in the past year, 74% of respondents felt so stressed they were unable to cope and 51% of adults reported feeling depressed. In the meantime, and as more people seek help, funding for NHS services remains static and is often slashed or cut entirely.

This climate, alongside a shift towards more open conversations around mental health, has led to a surge in the prevalence of apps seeking to increase wellness. But, could these apps be a saving grace, helping to reduce the burden on a sector seemingly in crisis? And if so, can they fully address the problem or does their true potential lie in prevention tactics as opposed to providing traditional treatment?

A digital therapist

Dr Zain Sikafi, the co-founder and CEO of Mynurva, believes his platform can supplement the lack of physical services tasked with providing desperate people with the help they can’t get elsewhere.

“Around 91 million working days are lost every year because of poor mental health,” he told UKTN. “300,000 people lose their jobs annually due to mental health symptoms, which costs the UK economy £99bn.”

At the same time, people aren’t getting treatment as quickly as they need it. Sikafi states that 10% wait over a year to receive treatment and just under 50% wait over three months.

The reason for this, he stated, is because it’s almost impossible to book NHS therapy sessions after 5pm or on weekends, leaving a lot of working people unable to access services at crucial times of need.

“At the same time, employees generally don’t want their employers to know due to the stigma and fear of loss of work,” he said. So, how does Mynurva provide a solution?

Mynurva offers fast access to a therapist or counsellor via a live video platform, including evenings and weekends, at no extra cost.

Sikafi believes that such remote-based, private and online therapy can be a welcome alternative to traditional therapy for some people.

“Our users love it, because they can actually see a therapist from the comfort of their own home or on a office break. They don’t have to travel anywhere, there isn’t a queue and they don’t need to download anything.

“Also in 90% of our cases we have been able to offer same-day appointments. This is important to us, because our users have reached out to us and chosen us as their source of support,” he added.

Mynurva is just one of a vast array of apps out there intended to improve our mental well-being. Yellowbrick, a provider of counseling, treatment and mental health services, looked into the most popular mental health apps in an attempt to discern how they’re being used. It found that wellness apps mostly focus on anxiety, stress and mood, with the top rated ones from last year being Calm, Moodnotes, Headspace, Pacifica and Talkspace. The majority of these apps focus on meditation to relax and calm anxiety, and offer digital therapy.

Skills for the workplace

Emoquo does things differently. It wants to use tech to prevent mental health issues before they arise, rather than treating them once they do. Abigail Rappoport, the CEO, explained how her platform is helping people feel better at work. “We are disrupting the coaching industry and making it available to everybody at work in a way that’s never been done before. We see coaching as a way to build emotional resilience and unlock potential,” she said.

The startup offers two solutions: a digital coaching app, which was launched last summer, and a real-time heatmap. Importantly, the app is completely confidential, and organisations can subscribe on behalf of their employees. “It acts like a coach that it is in your pocket, 24/7,” Rappoport said. “We work with a panel of 25 therapists and coaches across cognitive, neuro-linguistic and talking disciplines, to give different perspectives on situations.”

In the app, users are asked questions similar to what coaches would ask, and they uncover practical, advice-led content based on their answers. This involves expert advice on how to deal with all kinds of situations that we encounter at work including; being micro-managed or undermined, moaning and gossiping through to bullying and harassment.

“We focus on the small stuff,” Rappoport said. “Because people ignore the small stuff, they bury their head in the sand and hope it goes away but it doesn’t.

“The longer you ignore it, the bigger the problem gets and that’s what leads people to be clinically diagnosed with depression, anxiety or stress. We are about prevention, we want to nip it in the bud early on,” she added.

This preventative measure can also be used by the organisation itself. Emoquo’s real-time heatmap shows an anonymised picture of how employees are feeling. The ‘emotional resilience’ of employees is given a fluctuating score between one and five. This acts as a benchmark and early warning that something is going wrong, and reveals the coaching scenarios that people are looking up, to indicate what they are struggling with.

“The first time we realised this was powerful was with one of our early clients, a global automotive company that was going through a merger process where everything seemed to be on track,” Rappoport said.

“But, with the map they saw it wasn’t – because people were going into the app and the only thing they were getting advice about was conflict. They said they hadn’t get this insight from anywhere else.”

Rappoport stressed the importance of this digital support. There are 3 billion people employed around the world, and one in five suffer from a work-related mental health issue – which means that 600 million people are having a really bad time at work right now.

“The scary part is that only 10% of these people will seek help because of the stigma and fear of repercussions,” Rappoport said. “90% of the 600 million that need help are not being heard and that is what this app is about. It’s for people who need help and don’t want to go talk to someone about it.”

Gamification of wellness

Silja Litvin has also built an app intended to prevent rather than cure. The difference? Hers takes you on an adventure game. eQuoo borders on the realm of EdTech; with a game that aims to teach you essential psychological skills  – such as a communication or the ability to cope with stress. Only by learning these skills can you level up in the game. The reason? Litvin believes that getting mental health support doesn’t need to be tedious.

The inspiration for this app came from something quite removed from the wellness industry; the language learning app Duloingo. After creating an evidence-based app for depression during her PHD, Litvin realised that apps for mental health have a problem with retention. She did some research and found that this was because of two things; mental illness affecting motivation and cognitive skills, and a lack of enjoyment in the app.

And so she got talking to the CEO of Collision Studios, and they built EQuoo; an app they refer to as a sub-clinical, psychological skill learning game, which is launching in the UK and US in June.

“Subclinical” means it doesn’t treat depression; it teaches psychological skills that help build resilience and relationship skills, helping you create happier relationships and deal with stress better. It currently has over 3,000 players in Australia and New Zealand and just raised 20k in crowdfunding in order to implement AI in the app. They are also in the process of raising a £1.4m seed round. 

The idea is that every time you learn something whilst having fun you release a bit of dopamine, meaning the probability that you will remember it is much higher. Then you encounter a situation in real life which triggers the memory and you can utilise the skills, Litvin explained.

“I’m trying to spread as much help to as many people as possible and I love the idea of it being a game and not just a tool,” she said. “The brain is wired to learn and play and I think our system is a bit warped that we take the fun out of learning.” 

“If we can use all of the nasty tricks of the gaming trade to get people to actually stick to visual therapy you can provide millions of people with mental health care,” she added. “There are still going to be lots of people who need clinical support, but for low level and prevention, that is a quite unique opportunity.”

That could just be the crux of it all. Perhaps what tech and apps can offer the field of mental health treatment is more in the way of education and prevention, rather than attempting to replace clinical treatment.

While there is no doubt a need for more digital therapy options such as Mynurva to bridge the gap that the NHS can’t fill, simple wellness apps could be a useful way for consumers to learn new social and emotional skills to help them cope, before it’s too late and they are left desperately looking for assistance from bloated services.