The pandemic’s toll on behavioral health, along with recent statements from multiple high-profile athletes and celebrities, has catapulted mental and emotional well-being into mainstream consciousness. It’s about time.
Spending on behavioral and mental health has surged as people seek help to deal with illness, unemployment and social isolation, all in an increasingly fast-paced, pressure-filled world. Yet the digital revolution that has transformed many aspects of our daily lives has not yet truly emerged in behavioral health care.
The World Health Organization has noted that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Spending in the U.S. on behavioral health treatment and services — therapy, prescription medications, stays in psychiatric or substance abuse rehabilitation facilities — reached $225 billion in 2019, a 52% increase since 2009. The pandemic escalated the situation further.
The Covid-19 crisis will have long-term consequences on mental health, and these need to be prioritized. In 2019, about 11% of U.S. adults surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression; that percentage skyrocketed to 42% by December 2020 and is likely to increase.
Yet the focus and transformation of behavioral health was in the making prior to Covid-19. Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of digital behavioral health startups have launched to address various patient and clinician needs, and investment data backs that up. In 2020, mental health startup funding was more than $1.5 billion, which is about 5.5 times the $275 million investors ponied up in 2016, according to data from CB Insights. In that same four-year period, the number of deals nearly doubled to 124 from 69.
There’s no slowdown in sight, with funding in the first quarter of 2021 alone topping $795 million, about 50% of the entire amount in 2020, as mental health startups continue to jockey for market dominance. At aMoon, we recently invested in Eleos Health, which developed an “operating system” rooted in voice artificial intelligence (AI) to power the future of evidence-based behavioral health therapy sessions. We know the need and demand exist, and we believe access to care and quality of care must be intertwined to truly make an impact in the behavioral care space.
The importance of increased access
Before the pandemic, almost half of adults and children living with mental health conditions in the U.S. went without any treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Adding to this situation is the shortage of mental health counselors, and it’s clear another national health crisis looms.
The numbers are staggering:
In 2016, more than half of the counties in the U.S. did not have a single psychiatrist.
By 2025, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration projects shortages of:
o 10,000-plus marriage and family therapists
o 15,400 psychiatrists
o 27,000 mental health counselors
o 48,000-plus social workers
o 57,000 psychologists
It’s no wonder that solving for access, a major focus of many startups, such as Lyra, Mindstrong and TalkSpace, are among the top 10 funded digital behavioral health companies. Several of these firms are already unicorns. A growing number of apps aim to provide various forms of emotional support and behavioral therapy, as do generalist companies like AmWell, Omada and Livongo (now part of Teladoc). This indicates just how large the access problem is, and the market appears to accommodate both dedicated and generalist approaches.
Virtual therapy sessions help solve some access issues, but they were the exception rather than the rule before the pandemic. A May 2020 survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that 63.6% of the 500 members who responded had never used virtual sessions prior to the pandemic. Just two months into the public health emergency, that percentage plunged to 1.9%. This represents a sea change and demonstrates how quickly the industry can implement improvements.
Improving quality by adding tech
The shift from physical sessions to telehealth appointments redefines the patient experience. It also transforms the clinicians’ practice by making it easier to introduce and incorporate data analytics. These invaluable insights can help practitioners transition into evidence-based care, where data is collected in a similar fashion through electronic medical records (EMR) and used by most physicians.
An AI platform can run seamlessly in the background of therapy sessions, capturing every interaction and generating the baseline for clinical notes. This saves clinicians time — time better spent on patients — and provides data-driven insights about the session, patient progress and guidance for future interactions. The platform meets all privacy regulations (HIPAA compliant) and the session’s content is anonymized after a few weeks.
Enhanced mental health care that integrates human and artificial intelligence is in its infancy. While there are significant challenges to address, the potential benefits are enormous for all stakeholders: patients, therapists, providers and payers.
It is not enough to simply provide patients more access to care without ensuring that sessions are as meaningful as possible. AI, when employed in a careful, well-though-out manner, has the potential to help therapists derive useful insights and ultimately provide better care in a timely manner. This could have a positive impact also on the patient’s physical status. There is an increasing prevalence of comorbidity of mental and physical diseases, with increased costs to the patient and the health care system. Ensuring timely and effective mental health treatment is paramount to improving people’s physical well-being.
While the human brain (and soul) is complex with its own set of challenges, data collection from behavioral health sessions in a consistent, measurable and accessible manner — as we have been doing for many years with physical diseases — is essential to reach our ultimate goal: better care and better results.