April Koh of Spring Health and Alison Darcy of WoebotApril Koh, left, co-founder of Spring Health and Alison Darcy, right, founder of Woebot.
Spring Health and Woebot

  • Nearly one in five adults lives with a diagnosed mental illness, and estimates suggest that only half of these people receive treatment.
  • Entrepreneurs Alison Darcy and April Koh have both started companies to address mental health issues.
  • Darcy’s startup, Woebot, is an on-the-go therapy chatbot and app that uses the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression.
  • Koh’s startup, Spring Health, sells a digital mental health benefit to employers.
  • Both Koh and Darcy are making waves in the mental health space, and they were featured on Business Insider’s 30 health-tech leaders under 40 to watch.

In the age of social media and the internet, instant digital connectivity can paradoxically make us feel very isolated.

“People are a lot lonelier than we realize,” said Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot, a virtual therapist who will talk you through a panic attack at 3 a.m.

Woebot is just one of the new companies looking to address mental illness. Another is Spring Health, a startup founded by April Koh which sells a digital platform to companies to get their employees better access to mental health treatment. Both Darcy and Koh are featured on Business Insider’s 30 health-tech leaders under 40 list.

Over 44.7 million adults in the US live with a diagnosed mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s nearly one in every five adults, yet there is still a significant stigma attached to discussing mental health issues.

Estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment.

But new startups are pioneering a dramatic shift in how mental illness is diagnosed and treated.

“The fact is that a large number of people in the United States will never get in touch with a clinician,” Darcy said. “Around the world, it’s much worse than that. More than half of the population in the world does not have base access to basic healthcare. So we just have to do better.”

Darcy was previously a clinical research psychologist at Stanford, creating and developing treatments in a traditional, academic way. She left to build Woebot, which can deliver cognitive behavioral therapy that users can access on their phones or on Facebook messenger.

The app checks-in with patients every day, asks how they’re doing, and gives insights like “oh, you seem to be anxious every Sunday evening, what’s going on on Mondays?”

The non-intimidating, conversational format doesn’t deviate from the fact that it’s backed by a lot of algorithms, and can give users in-the-moment resources and advice.

In a world in which social media can breed unhappiness and loneliness, “everyone tells you everyone else is happier, and everything you do essentially amplifies,” said Darcy. “That’s not exactly a recipe for inner peace.”

Woebot, Darcy said, is not a replacement for traditional therapy, but part of an ecosystem where people have more choice to decide how they want to go about their mental health journey and when they should seek more intensive care through real-life therapy.

Koh’s Spring Health, meanwhile, takes a different tack. The company is trying to integrate mental healthcare into traditional benefits offered by employers and companies.

Spring Health is a digital mental health clinic that can preliminarily screen for mental health issues through an online questionaire. It then suggests personalized treatment options, and can connect users virtually with mental health professionals in their insurance network, based on their responses. This increases the ease of access for employees and their family members, and shortens the time between diagnosis and treatment planning.

Spring Health also uses clinically-validated machine learning to determine the best treatment plan for the patient. Koh saw her best friend cycle through seven different antidepressants before finding one that fit her, and she wants to use tech to shorten the trial and error process.

Mental health, untreated, can be a costly endeavor for employers. Serious mental illness costs America $193 billion in lost earnings per year, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Spring Health, in turn, is trying to make it make the mental healthcare experience better and more widely available.

“The industry is incredibly opaque so you’ll Google around for a therapist or psychiatrist and you’ll see a static list of providers with phone numbers, and they may or may not take your phone call,” said Koh.

Koh believes millennials are becoming more open to talking about mental health issues, which will open the door to better solutions.

“Stigma is being greatly reduced, so employers feel much more comfortable around bringing in tools and solutions that could help their employees become more mentally resilient,” she said.

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