Tech Is Bridging The Funding Gap To Tackle Global Mental Health Crisis

  • Current mental health funding levels are woefully inadequate and major investment is required, mental health advocates speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos have warned. 
  • In 2015, global funding for development assistance for health was estimated at $36 billion. Of that, only $110 million went towards mental health.
  • The WHO estimates one in four will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, with 450 million currently struggling with a condition. 

MIAMI, United States — Despite speakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month warning of the growing funding gap undermining efforts to prevent and treat mental health, technology and wellness platforms are increasingly rising to the challenge. 

Mental health advocates speaking at Davos in Switzerland, called for major investment into a woefully underfunded sector of health and wellness. Elisha London, founder and CEO of United for Global Mental Health, called for $1 billion in spending on mental health programs worldwide. “Invest in the system, invest in our rights,” she said. “It has to happen now.” 

London was joined by Indian actress Deepika Padukone who runs mental health advocacy group The Live Love Laugh Foundation and Miranda Wolpert, head of the mental health priority area at the London-based charity Wellcome Trust, in calling for major investment. 

As experts warned of a global mental health epidemic amid mounting evidence suggesting the issue is getting worse, the general consensus set alarm bells ringing.  

In 2017, the US recorded its highest suicide rate since the Second World War and while the rate for males was three times higher than for females, the gap is narrowing. Female suicide rates in the US are rising more quickly – by 53% since 1999, compared with 26% for men. 

Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates one in four will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, with roughly 450 million individuals currently struggling with a condition. 

Despite these statistics, current mental health funding levels, according to speakers in Davos, aren’t meeting the demands. In 2015, global funding for development assistance for health was estimated at $36 billion. Of that, only $110 million went towards mental health. 

Asked what would help address the issue, Padukone replied simply, “Money, money, money”. 

One of the biggest unsolved issues in wellness
Beth McGroarty, VP of Research at the Global Wellness Institute, which closely monitors the industry, echoed the sentiments raised in Davos. “Mental health and wellbeing is grotesquely underfunded in most nations,” said McGroarty.

“Considering the range of issues that affect mental health, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicide, addiction and aging — and stress accounting for the majority of doctor visits — this is undoubtedly one of the biggest unsolved issues in health and wellness.” 

McGroarty’s comments follow the release of the Global Wellness Institute’s latest wellness trends report. Although the report warns of the size of the issue, it also highlights how new mental health and wellness platforms are rising to meet the challenge. 

The report found that nearly two-thirds of those living with a mental disorder never seek help from a health professional with the greatest barriers being stigma, time, cost and availability. 

However, millennials are far more likely to address their mental health than generations before them, with seven out of 10 saying they feel comfortable seeking help. 

“Technological advancement has pushed digital therapeutics to the forefront of convenience – in people’s pockets, on their laptops and even within Facebook messenger,” wrote wellness journalist Rina Raphael, one of the report’s authors. 

“The category expands to include a suite of wellness products and services. It’s a new ecosystem that sees individuals relying on a wide range of tools – chatbots, apps and digital support groups – to combat modern-day issues such as burnout, loneliness and anxiety.” 

Nearly 10,000 mental health apps currently crowd the market, with meditation tools such as Calm evolving into billion-dollar companies. 

Read More: Meditation App Calm Joins Hims As The Latest Unicorns Of Wellness 

And it’s not slowing down. The behavioural health software market is projected to reach $2.31 billion by 2022, growing 14.8% annually, according to a recent Markets and Markets research report

Tech Is Bridging The Funding Gap To Tackle Global Mental Health Crisis
Image Credit: Paul Hanaoka

Rising to the challenge
One startup hoping to tackle the mental health epidemic head-on is London-based Biobeats, an AI and biofeedback app designed to teach people where their stress comes from and how to manage it. 

Founded by Nadeem Kassam, who previously sold advanced wearable watch Basis to Intel for $100m, and the startup’s CEO Dr David Plans, Biobeats has so far raised $6.6 million and earned the backing of actor Will Smith. 

Read More: The 10 Wellness Brands To Watch In 2020 

Dr Plans, speaking to Prolific, said: “[We want to] completely change the perception of mental health worldwide towards an informed, data-driven part of overall health […] using real-time data and artificial intelligence.” 

The GWI report also shone a spotlight on the broad range of innovative companies using tech to address the growing mental health epidemic. 

Virtual therapy apps such as TalkSpace, BetterHelp and Amwell are giving patients the ability to call, text and conduct video calls with professional counsellors remotely. 

Mental health wearables are in development, such as Sent Solutions’ Feel, an emotion-sensing wristband that monitors a user’s physiological signals and pairs with a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) app to alleviate anxiety. 

Chatbots are also on the rise. Woebot, an AI-enabled “robot friend” who looks like Pixar’s animated Wall-E, engages users through uplifting conversations. The digital therapist is available in 120 countries, serving more than half a million people. 

And virtual reality therapy is growing in popularity in China, where an estimated 90% of citizens with mental health disorders do not receive treatment and the number of psychiatrists is four times lower than the global average. 

There are also promising signs mental health platforms are meeting the growing demand for workplace wellness solutions. 

Octave Health, which combines in-person therapy with virtual coaching to learn CBT skills, recently became one of the first behavioural health practices to sign a major insurance deal by becoming an in-network provider for Anthem Blue Cross of California. 

“[Digital mental health] is a $500 billion category over the next decade,” predicts Octave Health founder Sandeep Acharya. “We’ve seen a huge spike in patient demand… and employers are demanding that their insurance companies cover this category better.” 

While better funding will be crucial for these innovative mental health platforms to succeed, these are positive signs — not least by the growing number of wellness-minded companies appearing at January’s Consumer Electronics Show — that via technology, solutions to alleviate this worldwide epidemic are on the horizon.