Many Asian countries have introduced stricter Covid-19 restrictions than on other continents, a reality that has raised concerns about high levels of stress, anxiety and isolation. Today, a number of young entrepreneurs are leveraging technology to provide better access to mental health care there.
In July, Singapore-based Intellect raised $20 million in its Series A funding, the highest amount raised by a mental health startup in Asia.
Founded in 2019, Intellect runs a mobile app that regularly checks users’ moods, offers lifesaving sessions and exercises tailored to their needs, and allows them to connect with real-time therapists when needed.
“The traditional form of therapy is in-person and one-on-one, and it’s hard to scale,” said 26-year-old Intellect co-founder Theodoric Chew. “When technology arrives, we can expand access to mental health care for everyone.”
The startup now serves more than 3 million users in the Asia-Pacific region in 15 languages since services began in early 2020.
Chew said he was inspired to try to popularize mental health care after battling a panic attack when he was 16.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes how therapy and working with professionals has helped me become better,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of people struggling in the area – not clinically, but without the right tools or know-how to access care.”
Although Intellect was founded before the pandemic, it quickly grew in popularity as companies became aware of the mental health of their employees amid Covid-19-related lockdowns and quarantines.
“A lot of people have been thrown into an array of things — pandemic anxiety, being locked down and receiving stay-at-home notices,” he said. “What has fundamentally changed is that mental health is no longer just a nice thing to have that companies should consider, it is something that is needed at all levels today.”
“It benefits businesses in a very real way…because if you’re not feeling good mentally, you tend not to perform as well,” he said.
Justin Kim, CEO and co-founder of Ami, another digital mental health care start-up based in Singapore and Jakarta, agreed there was a need to expand mental health offerings.
“Many companies spend millions of dollars a year paying for gym memberships. But why don’t people invest in their mental health in the same way? This is because there are no resources available to them which are equally accessible and affordable,” he added.
Since the start-up was founded in January this year, it has raised at least $3 million from several investors, including Meta, the owner of Facebook.
Kim’s team worked on developing an app that would allow users to confidentially text or call mental health coaches anytime – without having to make prior appointments. He said it allows users to seek professional help whenever they need it in the most efficient way.
Both Chew and Kim target employers in their business models – companies can pay for a subscription and workers will have unlimited access to their services, which are kept private from their bosses.
Alistair Carmichael, associate partner at McKinsey & Company, said employers will benefit from better mental health among their staff. “The impacts of poor mental health outcomes are significant. … If we focus on the job and the organizational level, those impacts can be things like presenteeism, absenteeism, lost productivity, lost engagement, and attrition,” he said. .
Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. And a WHO report in March showed that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic.
Chew said Intellect is trying to close the gap by proactively protecting mental well-being before symptoms worsen. When employees open the app, the system asks them how they are feeling right now. Mini “rescue sessions” are also offered for users going through a difficult time, while live therapy sessions are also available for those in need.
The app offers many learning programs that help users overcome mental obstacles, such as self-esteem issues, depression, or procrastination. A diary feature guides users by writing down what they think, while a ‘mood timeline’ keeps track of their stress levels.
Since the app’s launch, Intellect has served a number of high-profile enterprise customers such as Dell, Foodpanda and Singaporean communications conglomerate Singtel, Chew said, helping Intellect grow from a team from two to 80.
Kim, whose startup has built a prototype, said employers could also benefit from identifying trends and general concerns in their workforce.
“With employee consent, we share aggregate levels of data. And it gives employers a bird’s eye view of what their employees are really up against, what they need to dig deeper into,” he said.
“But we never identify who said that, because we don’t want employees to feel like this isn’t a safe space where they can freely address their concerns.”
Karen Lau, a Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist with the Mind HK mental health initiative, said mental health in Asia comes with unique challenges.
“In Asian contexts, many cultures tend to uphold values such as honor, pride, and a concept of face,” she said. “Mental illness is generally seen and judged as a sign of weakness and a source of shame for the family.”
“I think when it comes to mental health, just like your physical health, every problem is easier to prevent than to solve,” Kim said. “If people come out and admit and celebrate that they’re getting coaching or services to invest in their mental health, that’s going to normalize the practice.”
Chew said one of his goals was to break social stigma and build a new mental health system for the Asia-Pacific region.
“Mental health has long been stigmatized across Asia, where we traditionally see it as a clinical issue, a crisis,” he said. “We consider mental health to be just as important as physical health. You and I deal with things like stress, burnout, sleep issues, and relationship difficulties. This is where many of us should start working on our mental well-being.
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