Can entrepreneurs lead the future of mental wellbeing services?

There is no doubt that mental health plays a central role, not only for the wellbeing of individuals, but for the stability of societies alike. If we want to take care of one another, we have to be able to first and foremost take care of ourselves. Balanced societies need balanced individuals.

Yet mental health struggles have been part of all our daily lives since the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the challenges we were focusing before. It is quite certain that most of us have experienced over the last one and a half years at least some symptoms to differing degrees, such as anxiety, stress, exhaustion, or simply loneliness, among others.

The challenge of today’s entrepreneurs is to address the entire range of mental health issues citizens are experiencing, in professional and personal contexts, and to offer sustainable, innovative, affordable, and individual solutions. To date, most mental health services remain time-consuming, costly, rather difficult to access, or not suited to the individual.

So what could – or should – the future of mental well-being services look like, and how can today’s entrepreneurs lead the way?

An example from the North

In Finland, there is an ongoing and growing public debate about a potential healthcare reform. In a nutshell, citizens might be given subsidized access to short-term psychotherapy and other mental health speech therapy within one month from first contact with a healthcare professional (#terapiatakuu). The city of Helsinki is leading the way: access to basic mental health services will be soon granted within two weeks after a request to be helped.

This is a bold move, and an ambitious step towards democratizing mental health services. However, it also raises the question how the current public welfare structures are supposed to meet the (already huge) demand of mental health services and to scale up efficient professional psychological support schemes. And whilst the Finnish work on this challenge with their initiative of developing new public services (terapiatetulinjaan), the increased demand of mental well-being services is certainly not a local problem, but a global one. By logic, solutions should be global too, not merely suited to the local level.

How to scale up innovative ideas with true potential

The question remains how, and especially who, will develop these digital services that need not only to be user-friendly, but also effective and backed by clinical evidence. Especially the latter tends to be forgotten – there are nowadays an estimated 20,000 mental health apps to be downloaded on personal computers and smartphones, a phenomenon that can be pictured as “explosion of mental health apps”. But do we really want quantity over quality? Do we prefer the wrapping over the content?

Certainly, the focus of viable and promising digital mental health services must be on a smooth user experience, with scientific evidence and review alike. The added value of digital well-being services that function but remain underused is therefore as questionable as a digital solution that looks promising and engages its users but lacks science-based psychological interventions that are effective.

In the last two decades, many effective digital psychological interventions (e.g. internet-based self-guided treatments) have been developed by different research groups around the world. At least in Finland and Sweden, the public service certainly offers good content and effective scientific interventions. But the question remains: are they usable and how many actually benefit from them? Is there any use of these great scientific innovations, if the services aren’t appealing and engaging enough to retain its users, often mildly depressed or anxious?

Certainly, one size doesn’t fit all

It is fortunate that despite limited resources and funding, new innovative solutions are being developed in both the public and private sector. But 2021 should be just the beginning of new ventures and fearless experiments to build the best mental well-being solutions out there. We shouldn’t settle with the first digital service that comes to mind. We should aim high, try and err if need be – but never lose the complexity of mental health struggles from our sight. Just as unique as mental health is, as customizable a well-being service needs to be.

In the mental health business, stakes are high – and call for innovative and daring collaboration between different parties. Committed founders and decision makers should join in now to shape the future of digital mental health solutions. Because to tackle massive societal challenges originating from individual mental health struggles and collective trauma, we need more development of smart, efficient and sustainable mental health innovations. And we need a faster distribution of digital psychological interventions – time may heal wounds if treated, but it worsens them if left unchecked.