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Mental Health Start-ups Look to Digital Platforms To Increase Access

In an effort to make resources and quality care more accessible, brands and platforms are taking a digital-forward approach.

Mental health brands and platforms are harnessing technology and digital spaces to make quality care, support and resources more accessible. 

While the past few years ushered in the rise of telehealth platforms like Hims & Hers, they also instilled a demand for mental health resources. According to a survey by Verywell Mind, eight out of 10 consumers said therapy was a good investment, but 40 percent said they needed financial support to attend. 

With therapy prices ranging from $60 to $250 an hour or more and insurance not entirely covering costs, mental health care can be inaccessible for many. In an effort to meet these ongoing needs, a slew of apps have launched aiming to provide supplemental care to traditional therapy. 

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According to Grand View Research, the pandemic expanded the global mental health app market, increasing 54.6 percent between 2019 and 2021, and estimated to be worth $5.2 billion in 2022. Expansion is expected to continue with an estimated 20 to 22 percent year-over-year growth in the next five years. This is backed by consumer usage; according to a survey from McKinsey & Company, 64 percent of consumers use a wellness app daily. McKinsey & Company also sites the category as a major opportunity for businesses to invest in employee wellbeing by offering discounted app access as part of their benefits.

Apps “are a great addition for people who are in therapy. Those who aren’t in therapy, they’re still purposeful. They can still be helpful because the biggest thing about self-help, health and mental health is access to care… A lot of these apps and websites provide that access because they’re more affordable,” said Alyssa Mancao, a Los Angeles-based licensed clinical social worker. While these platforms can be helpful, she emphasized that these options are not equivalent to one-on-one or group therapy.  

Headspace, which was founded in 2010, was an early adopter of the digital mindfulness space and continues to be a popular option within the category with a 4.8 out of 5 stars rating on the Apple app store. Through both its direct-to-consumer and business-to-business models, the platform reaches 100 million people. 

Headspace provides daily mindfulness exercises and guided meditations for ongoing mental care. The key draw for users to try out Headspace is convenience. Through the app, a user can implement a daily practice that only takes a few minutes. This sort of daily use can help people hold themselves accountable, Mancao said. 

Headspace app.

In an effort to create a more holistic mental health offering, Headspace merged with mental telehealth company Ginger in 2021, which provides text-based chats, self-guided activities and video-based therapy. 

“What we realized when talking to our members is that they were using a broad array of mental health services in order to achieve the outcomes desired,” said Leslie Witt, Headspace’s chief design officer. “Part of our recognition was to say, we can do better if we actually formally bring these systems together, so that the dimension of personalized care that we’re delivering through the app is really working in tandem with the personalized care that a human care provider is able to bring.” 

Real, founded by Ariela Safira, launched with a mission to provide affordable and accessible mental wellness care for all. Safira aimed to create a platform that would reach consumers where they are and promote mental health services so that people aren’t only seeking help when they enter into a crisis.

Real features guided check-ins to track the user’s journey, virtual therapist-led events, live group therapy sessions and interactive mental health programs called pathways. The ability to be anonymous in group sessions on Real is enticing to many users, who may be more comfortable sharing something in this environment than they would in one-on-one therapy, according to Safira.

Real app.

“When I think of the world in 10 years, 2032 mental health care is going to look a lot more similar to 2022 fitness. What I mean by that is right now our only form of mental health care is basically one-on-one therapy, and that would be analogous to a world where the only form of fitness is one-on-one personal training,” Safira said. However, this is not the case, as today’s fitness landscape includes an entire ecosystem of digital and in-person offerings. “When I think of where Real is, it’s dedicated first and foremost to building that entire ecosystem,” Safira continued. 

To harness creativity’s beneficial impact on overall wellbeing, mental health advocate J Balvin launched Oye, a bilingual wellness app specifically developed to empower the Latinx community. The platform houses a suite of features including emotional check-ins, creative wellness videos, goal setting, generative art, mindful notifications and tailored content based on the user’s current mood. 

“We did this as a way to create a community that feels more open to look for a better quality of life,” Balvin said. The app is heavily focused on creativity with guided dances and meditations, as Balvin relies on the concept of turning emotions into creative actions. 

Oye app.

J Balvin isn’t the only celebrity to get involved in the space. Megan Thee Stallion launched a mental health website called Bad Bitches Have Bad Days Too, which offers a slew of resources, hotlines, therapy platforms and supportive content. 

Selena Gomez brought Wondermind to market in April 2022, along with Mandy Teefey and The Newsette founder Daniella Pierson. Wondermind is referred to by the brand as “the world’s first mental health ecosystem,” as it provides content, resources and a three-times-weekly newsletter for readers. With more than 270,000 active newsletter subscribers, the platform secured a $5 million Series A fund led by Serena Williams’ VC firm Serena Ventures in August 2022. 

Similar to Wondermind, Amy Keller Laird, former editor in chief of Women’s Health, also took a website approach with Mental, which launched in October 2022. Keller Laird began thinking about the opportunity in the space in 2016 when Women’s Health did a feature on 14 women who each discussed their mental illnesses. At the time and again years later, she felt there was a white space when it came to a lifestyle-focused media site that was targeted to those with mental health illnesses.

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Mental website.

Keller Laird noted when someone has a mental disorder “that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in beauty or fashion or other hobbies or they’re not musicians. They’re full humans, they’re dating, they have relationships, they have kids.” 

On Mental, readers can categorize content based on specific conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and trichotillomania, a disorder in which one pulls out their hair. Or they can browse different verticals like beauty and good buys, knowing that the content will be mental health focused and validated by a source. 

Silk + Sonder, founded by Meha Agrawal in 2017, combines physical and digital for a holistic approach to mental health with its guided journaling offerings. The app includes personalized daily prompts, guided audio modules, affirmations and weekly planning sessions, where users can engage with each other, prompting “peer-to-peer driven support and accountability,” according to Agrawal. She also noted the app is a “big retention driver of our users.”

Silk + Sonder app.