On the heels of World Mental Health Day, an app called MentalHappy is launching with the goal of making mental health care accessible, affordable and stigma-free.
"I've been on both sides of the spectrum where I can afford the $175 an hour for therapy, and where I couldn't afford it," said founder and CEO Tamar Blue. "We all need help navigating the life events that we go through, but how do we do that with an expert, not pay a fortune for it, be accessible, and do that collectively with other people in a positive way?"
MentalHappy's approach to solving this problem is to develop low-cost peer support groups on its app, with qualified professionals facilitating each group. These groups start at $10 per month, spanning topics like Black mental health, life after divorce and coping with anxiety. Some groups are more intimate, while others can have upwards of 100 members, functioning as a message board with the ability to join video meetings with the group leader. Blue told TechCrunch that she expects the app to have over 1,000 support group leaders by the end of the year, facilitating discussions about more than 47 different types of life events. So far, MentalHappy is working with psychologists, general practitioners (MD), acupuncturists and certified life coaches. Currently, the app is operating in the United States, but Blue plans to explore other countries and languages in the future.
"Security is top of mind for everyone," Blue said. While some groups can be fully anonymous, others use screen names to identify participants. "A lot of the groups have privacy control mechanisms, so the user would have to submit some type of authentication to let the group leader know who they are and why they want to join, just to make sure it's a great fit."
MentalHappy also offers a revenue stream for qualified health and wellness professionals -- the company takes 5% of their monthly earnings on the app. The professionals set their own price for access to their groups. But for larger groups, content moderation might pose a challenge. While MentalHappy has automated systems to identify trigger words or bullying, a group leader is expected to moderate their own group. Blue said sometimes leaders will bring in an assistant or an associate therapist to help them manage the group.
"MentalHappy is a marketplace," Blue said. "Similar to Airbnb hosts or Patreon creators, support group leaders are marketplace participants operating independently."
Image Credits: MentalHappy
An app like MentalHappy needs both facilitators and group members to work, and scaling the app at a sustainable rate could pose a challenge -- what if there are too many people seeking help, but not enough professionals to provide it? Right now, MentalHappy is focusing on onboarding group leaders, some of whom have existing client bases that they bring with them to the platform.
The cost of therapy often prohibits people from seeking mental health care, but Blue thinks that a remote, digital experience can also help people who might not physically be able to access specialized care in their area. Plus, the United States is experiencing a shortage in therapists -- according to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are only 31.3 licensed psychologists per 100,000 people. Many therapists and psychologists have long waitlists, making it harder for new patients to start treatment. Though one-on-one treatment can be essential for some people, MentalHappy's peer support groups can help make care more accessible and immediate in the interim.
"What we don't realize is nearly 180 million people live in rural areas in the United States, where they just simply aren't in driving distance to any type of mental health facility or office," Blue told TechCrunch. "So, meeting other people online is a perfect way to get that help."
MentalHappy also operates with a strong focus on diversity, working to develop support groups for people of various identities.
"I'm a Black woman in tech here in San Francisco, so I definitely know what it feels like to not really be able to identify with professionals, or colleagues, or people who look like you," Blue said. "That's something we really focus on. We do have Black and Brown health professionals on the platform that lead groups, because we know that provider fit is definitely very critical." In a recent launch event, for example, NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens was part of a support group specifically for Black men, seeking to shed light on the particular stigmas that Black men face in seeking mental health care.
But over the last five years, mental health care startups have been scrutinized for how they navigate the murky line between making money and providing quality support to users in need. The anonymous mental health app Talkspace struggled with violating clinical confidentiality and preventing therapists from reporting dangerous situations due to the patients' anonymity.
"We will facilitate case by case management of the identities of people in dangerous situations," Blue said. "We carefully vet the support group leaders and review their background. We provide best practices to ensure they are safeguarded as well as members on the platform."
So far, the second-time founder has raised $1.1 million in seed funding from Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures (Blue's first company CanUStart, which was acquired, helped efficiently match job seekers with employers). At first, MentalHappy was a wellness product for large corporations, working with clients like the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital and Boston Scientific. When an employee at these companies experienced a significant life event, MentalHappy provided wellness kits for support. But Blue wanted to expand MentalHappy's reach by creating a consumer product for the general public to access mental health support. Blue was part of the summer 2018 Y Combinator class, where she redeveloped MentalHappy into the app it is today, available on iOS and Android.