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The significance and urgent need for injecting tech and data-driven solutions into the mental health ecosystem

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India observed October 10 as the World Mental Health Day with the theme “Mental health in an unequal world”. The theme could not have been more apt in the present circumstances with glaring population level inequalities in knowledge and awareness, and access to mental health care solutions. According to a research paper by Lancet, there were 197.3 million people (14.3% of total population) with mental disorders in India in 2017. The same report states that mental disorders were the leading cause of YLDs (years of healthy life lost due to disability) in India, contributing 14.5% of the total YLDs in 2017. As per WHO estimates, India will suffer economic losses worth USD 1.03 trillion between 2012-2030, due to mental health conditions.

Mental health is unique and incongruent with other health disorders like diabetes as it is hard to quantify, difficult to diagnose, far from being conclusive and widely stigmatized. It is understood very little and continues to remain either undertreated or untreated at all. Adding fuel to the fire is the pandemic which has resulted in nearly 55% of India’s working professionals feeling stressed at work, according to the findings of a LinkedIn survey of 3,881 professionals conducted this year between July 31 to Sept. 24. The results strongly brought into focus the mental health of the working population, and underlined work-life imbalance, insufficient income, and slow career progress as the top three causes of work stress in India.

The gaps and challenges in the mental health ecosystem of the country are many. There is an alarming dearth of ‘providers’ – India has just 0.75 Psychiatrists per 100,000 population as against the conservative estimate of three and 0.07 Psychologists/ Social workers per 100,000 population vs. more than 30 in the US. A significant factor stopping people from seeking help is the frightening perception of a mental healthcare facility and stigmas of failure and weaknesses associated with seeking help. 

The possible similarity of symptoms across multiple mental health disorders often makes an accurate diagnosis difficult. The difficulty in correctly expressing a disorder can also lead to misdiagnosis – in multiple states in India, people don’t know how to express depression in one’s own native language. The affordability of current solutions is a big roadblock as well. For instance, in pay per session models, the pricing may range from Rs. 300 to Rs. 7000 and above per session.

Despite the challenges, we have come a long way in terms of awareness and treatment of mental illnesses. Policy level initiatives like Mental Health Act in 2017 and community level mental health programmes show that central and state governments are catching up fast; although only 0.6% of India’s health budget is spent on mental health care.

According to a latest report, the boom in internet access and telecommunications provide just the right opportunity for digital technologies and innovations in products, services and business models to scale up mental health solutions.  

Some of the highly billed digital tools include telepsychiatry, teleconsultation, meditation and mental wellness apps and games, AI chatbots, digital assessment and diagnostics, digital therapeutic approaches, virtual training and clinical support, personal health trackers, social media websites, online peer support forums, and many more. Startups are combining digital tools and virtual care to create a robust ecosystem for end-to-end patient care, including directing patients to in-person care when needed. In terms of products, disruptive tech models using AI & ML are picking up speed as they reduce the chances of misdiagnosis thereby improving treatment outcomes. Bengaluru-based Sparcolife has developed a diagnostic tool that uses video analytics as primary modality for screening and assessment and has partnered with healthcare institutions to deploy the product. Investments in digital therapeutics and AR/VR technologies can make mental healthcare more accessible, despite the growing shortage of specialists in the field. Delhi-based TattvaVR is a provider of virtual simulations that helps patients face virtual scenarios and experiences to treat phobia, anxiety, and PTSD.

In terms of business models, startups are also positioning themselves as B2B2C platforms where employers pay for the mental well-being of their employees for improved productivity. Pune-based Manah Wellness is building a comprehensive and preventive emotional well-being platform for employers that focuses on three important pillars i.e. emotional wellbeing, personal growth and professional effectiveness.

Mental health startups historically have faced challenges owing to social stigma and unproven business models. With the current tailwinds and rising awareness, startup investments have witnessed positive change as the investors are quite excited about models solving for demand and supply-side issues. Technology, beyond a doubt, is the much-needed boost to democratize mental health in India. However, a collective push is required from multiple stakeholders. 

The ecosystem needs startups to create innovative digital solutions to solve for awareness, diagnosis and treatment, and investors to show interest towards promising business models. Corporates need to develop policies and support mechanisms for mental health of the employees, while it is high time insurers start to cover in-patient hospitalization expenses for mental illnesses as well as outpatient counselling or therapy. A lot would change once the Mental Health Act is implemented and enforced. However, the most significant cog in the wheel remains the society’s openness to acknowledge and tackle mental health issues.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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