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Wellness, Startups, and Mental Health: Confronting A Growing Crisis

Burnout, depression, loneliness, and anxiety are on the rise. Worse, stigmas related to mental health and a lack of access to care force many to suffer in silence.

But now, driven in part by the wellness boom and technology startups, mental health is breaking into the mainstream. Is mental health the next frontier of wellness and is Silicon Valley part of the solution? Let’s take a look.

A silent epidemic: confronting the growing mental health crisis.

  • Over 40M Americans suffer from mental illness, including depression and anxiety.
  • One in five people dealing with mental illness say their needs are going unmet.
  • Left unchecked, the mental health crisis could cost the global economy $16T between 2010 and 2030.

Framing up the discussion, it’s important to mention that mental illness is complex and universal. Far from a fixed state, mental health ebbs and flows along a spectrum ranging from thriving to coping or struggling to clinically-treated mental illness.

This expansive view and fluid state of mental well-being make diagnosis and treatment difficult. Similarly, because the term mental health can refer to yoga and meditation as well as dementia and schizophrenia, there’s often ambiguity in discussing the subject.

As it pertains to this piece, though, we’ll focus on a more general definition of mental health that includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Underlying societal factors. An increasingly polarized worldview, technology and social media, drug addiction, and lack of economic and employment opportunities are among the numerous contributing factors to a global mental health crisis.

A flawed system. The mental health sector is in critical need of transformation. Most notably, there’s a shocking gap between demand (those in need of care) and supply (access to affordable care). In the US, for instance, more than 46M people report experiencing mental illness each year. Yet, there are only 28K psychiatrists in the US — a number that’s declining.

Individuals who are able to access care will wait an average of 25 days for an appointment. Even then, treatment is often expensive, with in-room therapy costing $150–$400 per session, plus the added cost of medication if necessary. Unsurprisingly, 45% of untreated individuals cite cost as a barrier.

At a time when suicide rates are at an all-time high, 130 individuals die each day from opioid abuse, and one in eight Americans over the age of 12 are taking an antidepressant every day, it’s painfully clear that the current system is ill-equipped to address mental health.

Seeking solutions: from meditation to artificial intelligence and hardware to telemedicine, mental health is getting a makeover.

Wellness. It’s critical to note that mental health and wellness are not the same. While the Global Wellness Institute claims that “the future is mental wellness”, it goes on to cite wellness spas and retreats, meditation studios, and mystical “New Age-y” solutions like sound baths as evidence of this trend.

  • From CBD-infused sparkling water to mystical services like astrology apps and even healing crystals, wellness trends promise to cure us of anxiety and burnout.

Sure, the rise of wellness culture has helped bring awareness to mental well-being. And it’s true that more people are practicing yoga, meditation, and breathwork. But wellness is a luxury, and mental illness can be a matter of life and death. Conflating them is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

Tech. Like the wellness industry, tech startups are making big promises when it comes to their role in mental health. Also like wellness, there are concerns about the actual impact. But the list of companies entering the space is growing, prompting White Star Capital to dub this the “golden age of mental health tech.”

  • In 2018, 230+ mental health startups were funded, with $800M invested in the space.
  • The behavioral and mental health software market is expected to reach $4.77B by 2026.

Across the sector, tech startups break out across six categories, including computerized cognitive behavioral therapy, telepsychiatry, consumer tools, applied artificial intelligence, provider tools, and hardware.

Among the more prominent players, Calm and Headspace have built billion-dollar businesses around cognitive behavior therapy. Two Chairs ($21M in funding) uses technology to match patients with therapists at on-site clinics. Meanwhile, Alma ($12.5M) is creating coworking for therapists. Still others, like Talkspace ($106M) and Lyra Health ($178M), are connecting patients and therapists digitally.

A new way forward: despite obvious challenges, there are some indications that we’re ready to rethink mental health.

Kids these days. Instead of suffering in silence, Gen Z has demonstrated a willingness to discuss mental health more openly, with 72% of Gen Zers saying managing stress and mental health is their most important health and wellness concern.

Perks of the job. Workplace wellness is moving beyond free food and unlimited vacations to include mental health services. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety accounting for $1T in lost productivity annually, but investing in employee mental wellness yields a fourfold increase in productivity.

High on life. As opinions of what constitutes an “illegal drug” continue to evolve cannabis and psychedelics (like psilocybin and LSD) are moving into the mainstream. Seen as a potential breakthrough in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions, psychedelics could play a prominent role in the future of mental health care.

Takeaway: from traditional medicine to technology companies and woo-woo wellness to psychedelics, we’re ready to take an any means necessary approach to treat mental illness. As this trend continues, expect to see a new wave of tools and treatment options emerge as more attention and resources are devoted to the mental health space.

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