According to the latest figures available from the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five Americans — 45 million people — are afflicted by some type of mental health condition. Despite the fact that mental health is a widespread problem in the U.S., there are several barriers to accessing services — including geography. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department reports that roughly 111 million people live in “mental health professional shortage” areas, making it challenging for patients to reach local professionals.
TAO Connect believes that smartphones could offer a gateway, virtually connecting patients to mental health services through a subscription-based pricing model, similar to that of over the top (OTT) streaming services and meal kit deliveries.
TAO, which stands for Therapy Assistance Online, offers subscribers access to screening services, video conferencing with mental health professionals, educational modules, gamified tools and other interactive resources that can be accessed via smartphone. Subscription plans can be purchased as either a monthly or yearly plan.
“An online solution,” TAO Connect CEO Bob Clark, said, “can solve a lot of those geographical barriers to access.”
In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Clark and Dr. Sherry Benton, TAO Connect’s founder and chief science officer, explained how the company relies on evidence-based tools and machine learning (ML) to gauge a patient’s needs, and help therapists and patients better understand their progress.
Expanding Mental Health Access
TAO Connect licenses its services to colleges, universities, hospitals and medical networks, which then make the service available to the students or patients they cover. In addition to this B2B service, the company also offers subscriptions directly to consumers.
The inspiration for the service came from Benton’s earlier work as the director of counseling for a university. The university’s counseling center often struggled to meet the high volume of demand from students, and placing students on a waitlist can prolong their mental health problems, exacerbate their effects and even take a toll on their academic careers.
“If you make a student who is pre-med wait five weeks to start treatment for depression, they’re going to lose their whole semester and it could affect their entire future,” Benton said.
TAO decided to offer a B2C option after hearing that undergraduate students, who used the service while under the coverage of their college or university, wanted to continue using it after graduation.
“We got a lot of phone calls saying, ‘We need a way to get to this,’” Benton said. “Selling it to individuals on a pay-per-month basis came from demand from students who were using [the service] at universities.”
A subscription-Based Cure For Social Stigma
Making mental health services available through a smartphone could also address why some don’t seek treatment in the first place. A subscription-based telemedicine approach means users don’t have to show up to counseling centers or fit appointments into their schedules. Instead, they can engage with the platform and communicate with mental health professionals at their convenience.
Subscription-based models also offer another benefit: users who might feel uncomfortable visiting a mental health center can access resources with their privacy largely intact.
“It allows people who are concerned how they might be viewed an outlet to access mental health without anyone knowing,” Clark said. “It may not change the stigma, but it certainly allows [more access for] people for whom the stigma was a problem.”
Enhancing Mental Health Engagement With Data
Easier access, however, does not always ensure engagement. Earlier iterations of TAO Connect offered resources that relied on people talking to each other and working with educational materials that, while insightful, ultimately failed to retain users. To turn this trend around, the company reimagined the model by offering gamification, animations and more engaging content.
TAO Connect’s dashboard now uses ML to detect when and how a patient interacts with the platform’s content, giving mental health professionals the ability to more effectively measure how these patients are engaging with the material.
“Unfortunately, one of the ways [for therapists] to tell if we’ve met the patients’ needs or not is if they come back, or if they don’t,” Benton said. “It’s not a good way to find out.”
TAO is designed to make accessing mental health feel more like taking an online class or playing a mobile game, which encourages greater engagement in hopes that patients continue to use the service beyond a video session.
“We know that [what] makes psychotherapy more helpful is not what you do in sessions,” she said, “but [what you do] in between sessions.”
The service encourages users to engage with materials more evenly between sessions, and the data tools tell providers which patients remained engaged, and which ones scrambled to review the materials before the start of a new video session.
“That accountability encourages people to distribute their package throughout the week instead of doing everything 30 minutes before their next session,” Benton said.
These factors could help broaden the reach of mental health services, providing services to those who have previously been unable to access it.
“My hope is that we can stop letting mental health care be something that is just for the rich and for people in areas and concentrations where there are therapists,” Clark said, “and that we can get effective mental health care to those who have not been able to get it in the past.”
Consumers are staying increasingly connected to their smartphones, and the continued rise of subscription services could eventually make mental health resources as easy to access as music and meal kits.