By Navya Sharan
Schools are shuttered down and office buildings are deserted. We are showing our love for our friends and family by staying indoors and away from them. The streets are empty and the few who dare to venture outside dress for battle with the invisible enemy in makeshift personal protective equipment. While we flinch at the thought of someone coming within 6 feet of us, doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers are putting their lives on the line to stop our healthcare systems from bursting at the seams. As healthcare systems all over the world grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic – be it because of lack of protective equipment, medical supplies, personnel, or facilities – it is evident that the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in international healthcare systems. For a world as interconnected as ours, none of this may be news, but what one may be shocked to learn is the toll this pandemic has taken on mental health and while the situation for physical healthcare services may be bleak, it is, unfortunately, only worse for mental healthcare services.
Through necessity, the world is now more connected than ever and it is almost impossible to miss the pervasive headlines about the escalating infection rates. This constant stream of information is beginning to adversely affect mental health. A tracking company found a 30% surge between December 2019 and March 2020 in the average time spent on health and fitness apps in USA.1 A crisis hotline operated by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported a spike in calls of over 300% since February 2020.2 In countries like India with severe state-enforced lockdown regulations, mental health cases have risen by 20% with at least one in five Indians experiencing mental health issues.3 With increasing worries about health and the economy, many are turning towards mental healthcare companies for help and support.
As social distancing measures become the temporary norm, mental healthcare companies are rapidly scaling up to offer virtual and digital treatments to meet this demand. Several health-tech companies have also acquired new customers. 2 For instance, as of April 2020, Starbucks has partnered up with Lyra Health to offer 20 annual in-person and virtual therapy sessions to all of its employees and their families.4 Walmart, among other Fortune 50 companies, is working with Supportiv, another mental health platform, to provide their employees with mental health services. Likewise, Ginger, a virtual chat- and video-based therapy provider has seen a 25% increase in sessions in the last quarter. Companies are also trying to increase accessibility to services by providing the public with free content. Series C, a Blisce start-up, has created an openly accessible meditation collection aptly titled, ‘Weathering the storm’.
So, what does this mean for innovation and entrepreneurship in mental healthcare? Although it may seem like existing mental healthcare companies are successfully filling the gap in the market, these companies are merely a band-aid for the actual problem. Despite the ubiquity of individuals experiencing mental illnesses, access to mental health services are, at best, limited. Entrepreneurs need to come up with innovative and disruptive solutions to ensure that those who need care can receive it. Mental healthcare is a fundamental right that should be afforded to everyone. “I think mental health is one of those industries that will weather market volatility or a recession, because at the end of the day people need that support that we can provide,” says Jonathan TranPham, CEO of Reflect. 2 It should not take a global crisis for us to discover the importance taking care of our mental and physical health. Bjorn Lee, founder of MindFi states that, “The role of a mental health startup like MindFi is to make people understand that there’s a duality to our health – the mind and the body must be in balance. Our job is to make people understand that you need your mind to be fit and healthy as well.”5 Despite the fact that inadequate mental healthcare costs the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity6, it continues to be an overlooked problem. In the words of Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist and CEO of Woebot, “we just have to do better.”7
Now, more than ever, we are living in a world where our mental health is constantly under threat. The world is looking at us – the next generation of young entrepreneurs – to conceive innovative solutions that drive change. Once the dust settles on this pandemic, all eyes will be on how our healthcare systems are rebuilt. As entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow, this is our chance of getting in on the ground floor and building healthcare systems that resilient, inclusive, and accessible so that we emerge from this with a better appreciation for the importance of mental healthcare.
 Haverstock, E. (2020, March 17). As pandemic anxieties worsen, mental health startups rise to the challenge. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://pitchbook.com/news/articles/as-pandemic-anxieties-worsen-mental-health-startups-rise-to-the-challenge
 Jackson, A. (2020, April 10). A crisis mental-health hotline has seen an 891% spike in calls. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/10/us/disaster-hotline-call-increase-wellness-trnd/index.html
 Varshney, R. (2020, April 17). This Mumbai-based startup by psychiatrists is addressing mental health during coronavirus. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://yourstory.com/2020/04/mumbai-psychiatrists-mental-health-coronavirus-innerhour-startup?utm_pageloadtype=scroll
 Reuter, E. (2020, April 12). Covid-19 worries cause companies to seek mental health tools. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://medcitynews.com/2020/04/covid-19-worries-cause-companies-to-seek-mental-health-tools/?rf=1
 Le, T. H. (2020, April 21). MindFi founder Bjorn Lee on rising demand for mental wellness services due to COVID-19. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://kr-asia.com/mindfi-founder-bjorn-lee-on-rising-demand-for-mental-wellness-services-due-to-covid-19
 Mental Health By the Numbers. (2019, September). Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.nami.org/mhstats
 Hu, C. (2018, July 21). Millions are battling mental illness – these entrepreneurs are trying to tackle it via technology. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/top-mental-health-startups-2018-7?IR=T