Many brands in the healthcare space are tackling mental health, hoping to find the solution to this under-addressed health concern. From digital solutions to wearables to new therapies, companies are looking to bridge the gaps in traditional care and help people from slipping through the cracks.
Like any specialized care within the broad scope of health, mental health covers a lot of ground. While some people may need professional assistance, other people may find themselves just going through a tough time or stressful experience. Finding individuals who have “been there” is a proven way to work through these issues and gain some much needed support. Evidence indicates that peer support programs have a beneficial impact on an individual struggling with a mental health issue, and if he or she is in the healthcare system, peer support can also reduce costs and increase adherence to treatment.
— Supportiv (@SupportivApp) September 28, 2018
Supportiv offers an anonymous way to address concerns with a peer group, without the fear that your personal information will go public. Its technology matches you with other users who have dealt or are dealing with a similar challenge, giving you a space to engage and feel that you’re not alone. Trained moderators keep the discussions on the right track and unlike social media, you’re kept in a safe space where you can build out a network of supporters. I was able to catch up with co-founder Pouria Mojabi at this year’s Health 2.0 conference to talk more about his technology and mission.
It’s great to see more solutions like Supportiv emerge on the market for mental health. Why do you think it’s taken this long to start the shift in thinking around mental health?
Mental health is very challenging: It is invisible, hard to measure, track and diagnose, which has made it difficult both from data collection perspective and growth.
The mental health user experience does not help either. Traditionally you had to sit down in an office with strangers you often did not know and were then judged by them. Even the digital/online experience is challenging given a lot of online therapy platforms invest in improving the patient-therapy matching process.
There is still a significant stigma, but the US is by far ahead compared to other nations, thanks to men and women who openly and publicly expressed their struggles. On our website, we have a section dedicated to celebrities expressing their struggles, which has helped more and more people open up and seek support. By talking about their experiences, celebrities are de-stigmatizing not only serious mental health issues but also the vulnerabilities of everyday life. They are sending a hopeful message that if you are struggling, you are not alone! And if you express it, it might help you find your healing path.
The Supportiv website describes the app as precision peer support. How do you define this, and why is peer-to-peer contact impactful when it comes to treating mental health struggles?
There is a lot of science and research on the efficacy of support groups. For example:
Traditional peer support groups are pretty much open to all: chat apps with maybe a static category drop-down to help navigate it. We completely rejected the idea of having static category-based groups, and questionnaires to “personalize” your category selection.
What we set out to do is use language-processing techniques to precisely match you with others going through the same struggle, and that is how precision peer support was born. In our world, peer groups form dynamically based on the similarity of different struggles. That essentially allows us to address any topics. Precision peer support is not just limited to finding the right peers, it is also about sending hyper-targeted content and resources relevant to what the individual is going through.
When users see others going through a similar struggle, it gives them hope that they are not alone and that hope contributes significantly to the healing process. We also see that people find a new purpose in life when they help peers. Our survey shows 68% felt happier after helping others, and 79% felt happier after connecting with peers.
Do mental health professionals play any role in the Supportiv brand?
We don’t have any mental health professionals on our platform. Our moderators are psychology students (grad and undergrad) who have gone through our in-house peer support training protocols. We draw a clear line between peer support and giving advice or therapy. Our moderators are trained to ask open-ended questions and to help facilitate empowering conversations among peers. Moderators are also equipped with mute and kick-out powers in case a user violates our rules. Each of these functionalities also sends a message to the group to make sure that they know that the moderator is taking care of the situation.
Although we say at the beginning that we are not a suicide hotline, moderators are equipped with emergency buttons in case of suicidal thoughts or other urgent interventions like sexual assault or domestic violence. The emergency functionality takes the user to a page with one tap to dial the hotline number.
Moderators can also send relevant content and resources. As people talk in these peer groups, our language processing engine recommends relevant content and resources based on the conversation, and moderators can decide whether they want to share it with the group or not—and users respond well to this.
What’s the ideal brand experience you’re hoping to create for a Supportiv user?
“Support is less than a minute away.” We have spent years on the technology behind it. After you anonymously express yourself on our platform, in a few seconds, we measure similarity across all the thoughts on the platform and match you with the right support group. Our goal is to connect you to the right support group in almost real time.
“Any topic, any time.” We also love to let our users know that they can come to our platform with any possible topic or struggle. If we don’t have a peer group that matches them, we will open a new one for them, and they will get to spend one on one time with the moderator.
“One question only: What is your struggle?” We are also really proud of our simple user experience. We don’t have any signups or registrations, because they’re not convenient. All we ask is one question: What is your struggle? And if you don’t feel like typing, our platform helps you create a sentence with a few taps. So literally with two to three taps, you are in a peer group!
Can you talk a little bit about how your previous experience impacted the development of Supportiv? Have you considering applications of AI or DNA-testing when it comes to mental health?
We do have a powerful AI right now, and we are one of the early advocates of using AI for emotional and mental support.
I worked with DNA data for a few years. When I was at BaseHealth, we built an engine for disease assessment using DNA, blood test and lifestyle factors. And at Vitagene, I used DNA data to personalize supplement recommendation. When you look at DNA data, it is a long string of As and Gs and Ts, and depending on how you put them together, you can make words, sentences and paragraphs. Essentially, each human becomes a textbook and DNA alignment algorithms and language processing algorithms start to overlap. We used this overlap and built our AI for language processing, inspired by DNA alignment algorithms.
Our technology approach is also very unique. If you look at chatbots today or the technologies behind Alexa or Google Home, they are hard at work, trying to understand exactly what the user says—fully understanding the sentence and generating a perfect answer.
We took a completely different approach: We don’t have to understand exactly what the user says—we just need to do a perfect job of finding something similar. That essentially changes the thinking from absolute to relative, so for us, it is a lot of correlation and similarity measurements.
Another thing that is working for us is the fact that we collected close to 1 million conversation data points on our platform during our MVP. These conversations are all around mental health and emotional well-being, and we have used them to train our language models. Almost all language processing models are trained with Twitter or Wikipedia. Our models are customized for mental health, and we are at least three times more accurate than anything else that’s out there.
Regarding DNA testing, we are definitely interested in that. I know companies like 23andMe have already started collecting data to see if there are genetic links to depression. Our core offering right now is helping with daily struggles, and we will be focused on the environment side before we look into genetics.
Nicole Diamant is head of communications for InterbrandHealth.