For decades, mental health has been a topic of taboo, especially among more traditional Asian countries. Many experience mental health challenges in silence as the stigma of being perceived as “weak” or “abnormal” can be high.
According to a 2018 study by the Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced some form of mental disorder in their lifetime. More than three-quarters of them did not seek professional support, with majority of them citing that they were deterred by the high costs of treatment.
This lack of affordable and accessible mental health resources in the market, coupled with the vast innovation gaps she was seeing between North America and Asia, spurred Joan Low to start ThoughtFull – a digital mental health startup which aims to make access to mental healthcare more seamless and affordable for individuals and organisations.
Wall Street Banker Turned Medipreneur
About 15 years ago, a scholarship took Joan out of her hometown in Malaysia and marked the beginning of an adventure that would take her across different locales from Canada, the Northeast of the USA to London, Paris, and Beijing for work and studies. Before landing back in Southeast Asia, she was most recently in Hong Kong, where she worked as a banker at J.P. Morgan, managing a portfolio of over US$1.3 billion.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Joan shared. Beneath the excitement of adventure however, she was also acting as a mental health caregiver to a loved one for the past 20 years. Having seen the innovations around the world, Joan grew frustrated at how little had changed in the mental healthcare scene over the course of two decades back home.
The motivation to close this innovation gap in mental healthcare as well as her first-hand experience with the challenges of accessing seamless and affordable care, was what spurred her to take the leap of faith – swapping finance to become the change that she wanted to see.
The energetic thirty-something admitted that it was a very big risk, because she didn’t know whether the market was ready for ThoughtFull at the time (this was pre-pandemic).
“But I think for me, it was very clear and very obvious that this was needed in society. It was needed 20 years ago, it’s needed today, and it’s going to be needed 20 years from now,” Joan affirmed.
“And when you are very sure of what you’re going into, then I think it makes the decision more worthwhile,” she continued.
As opposed to jumping into prescribing a solution right away, ThoughtFull took the path less travelled – building from ground-up. Through running programs for corporates and universities, the team charted the user journey, mapped out the organisational nuances, and validated their assumptions with real paying-clients.
“ When we started flagging 1 in 3 employees as severe or extremely severe, in one or more categories of stress, anxiety, depression, we knew that there was a latent demand that hasn’t been addressed,” Joan shared.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
In 2020, ThoughtFull accelerated their launch of ThoughtFullChat as a direct response to the pandemic. ThoughtFullChat is a mobile application that empowers users to engage with their mental health earlier – before a cure is ever required. Joan likens this to caring for your physical health.
“If we proactively exercise and watch what we eat to maintain a healthy physical body and to avoid diseases, then we should be preventatively safeguarding our minds as well.”
For $169-$199 a month, the subscription-based platform provides users with self-serve mental wellness tools and access to certified mental health professionals where users can engage them for one-on-one daily bite-sized coaching. All coaches are vetted and their algorithms instantly match users to their best-fit coach. Joan noted that majority of the users they serve are aged between 20 and 40 – university students and working adults.
Joan shares that “our model is very different to traditional telemedicine or therapy format. It is not a booking platform for a one-off or infrequent one-hour session, it is ongoing and proactive.”
For ThoughtFullChat, “users can go into the chatroom at any time of the day to text or audio message their mental health professional, and receive a response within 24 hours. Coaches will proactively work with users daily or at a pace that users are comfortable with. So there’s a lot of ongoing engagement and progress tracking,” she continued. Adding to the validation of the service model by people who are using it, ThoughtFullChat has a retention rate of more than 60% of its users.
ThoughtFullChat focuses on upstream prevention for stress, anxiety, and mild depression where the client segment that they focus on is usually working professionals and university students going through the undulations of stresses and anxiety from everyday life. For more severe cases such as clinical depression, bipolar, and the like, ThoughtFull has just launched their beta booking platform for Virtual Therapy on their website.
Building A More ThoughtFull Workplace
Today, organisations and individuals are more willing to invest in their mental health.
“I think one of the biggest things that has been a boon for digital mental healthcare, is the fact that the pandemic has really brought to light, not just the physical aspects of being in lockdown, but also the psychological effects that it has on a person,” said Joan. At the same time, Joan sees an increasing number of people willing to engage in their physical and mental healthcare via digital solutions.
During circuit breaker in 2020 when most people had to work from home, many reported experiencing heightened stress levels as they struggled to adapt to the new normal. Since then, more companies are starting to see the co-relation between mental health and productivity levels and are more willing to invest in the mental well-being of their employees.
“I think one very big indicator on how market trends have changed, and how companies are more willing to invest in it, is when you have more companies who have never done it before coming to you to see how to implement something for the employees,” Joan said.
She also stressed that employee well-being is important for every company, regardless of size.
Having a mental healthcare programme for employees isn’t just for the biggest companies either. “SMEs likely have less people to do a lot more, resulting in a higher probability of employee turnover and burnout. Another reason is that employees tend to perform in many different functions. So, you need your employees to be in tip-top condition to be working optimally,” she explained.
Businesses that are interested in working with ThoughtFull to create a more resilient workplace may visit their website for more information.
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