I didn’t think it would happen in our neighborhood, but a young high school student took his life in January 2020 right down the street. I now walk around our neighborhood and see signs for the new 3-digit “988” dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline established in July 2022. A friend of mine mentioned that his teenage daughter is in counseling, as are most of her friends. I’m sure there were people in my high school in counseling, but I don’t recall knowing anyone. It certainly wasn’t anywhere close to today’s situation where there is such a shortage of mental health professionals that many people in distress are uninsured and/or can’t even find a mental health provider.

You don’t need to look far these days to find someone struggling with mental health challenges, particularly among adolescents. Brain Health bootcamp shares some very troubling statistics:

  • 1 in 3 teens struggles with their mental health
  • 75% of lifetime mental illness begins in adolescence
  • 50% of those struggling never seek help

In U.S. schools, an Education Week study showed that only 8% of districts met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students.

Image courtesy of CNN

And in the workplace, it’s a grim picture as well, as over 75% of workers in 2021 reported either anxiety or depression symptoms, up over 15% from the previous 2 years and a huge drain on stress levels and the healthcare system (source: U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services). According to the WHO, anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally during the first year of the pandemic. The CDC reports that the pandemic’s destruction affected kids of all ages: 200,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID, and nearly 30% of U.S. high school students had a parent or caregiver who lost their job. “The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated numerous social stressors that we know can increase the risk of both substance use and mental illness," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Between the pandemic and an increasingly digital world, many are left feeling isolated. This is further exacerbated with remote work and lack of mental health professionals, even online. In fact, loneliness, which is associated with higher depression, has risen dramatically since the 1980s and studies show loneliness is a higher risk to our mortality than being obese, and as risky as smoking a pack of cigarettes each day.

It’s no wonder that according to a 2022 CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 9 of out 10 adults believe the U.S. is experiencing a mental health crisis. Consumers, young and old, are finding life more challenging than ever.

Image courtesy of Health
Health Deserts are a catalyst for Innovation in Mental Health

And if you are like over 1/3 of Americans who live in what’s known as a “health desert”, an area with insufficient access to primary care providers, pharmacies, hospitals, trauma centers, and community health centers, finding someone to help will be difficult

Where there is crisis there is also opportunity. These are the situations in consumer health and wellness that also bring passion and energy for us and our clients to solve these unmet consumer needs. The lack of mental health professionals nationwide has spawned an array of companies trying to address the mental health needs.

Image courtesy of Little Otter, Moonbird, Nowatch, Prepare Your Mind and Mindright

Little Otter, for example, founded by a leading child psychologist, provides a platform for the whole family, with daily tools for wellness and mental health targeted at families with kids 0-14. In our work at Compass, we focus on identifying core insights that create a tension that needs to be solved. A core insight that Little Otter is addressing is that mental health is not an individual issue, it’s a family issue. Everyone is impacted when one family member is struggling. If they can solve address that insight, the impact is significant.

Real seeks to address the 3 access problems with mental health: High cost, stigma, and long waitlists. They offer a community-driven model of care developed by licensed therapists with on-demand resources, monthly mental health tracking, and group therapy. It’s available for a monthly subscription that costs significantly less than traditional talk therapy. This solution encourages real world patient engagement. We are seeing this more and more in healthcare innovations as this type of engagement has been shown to have a positive impact on truly improving patient outcomes and reducing overall healthcare costs.

Moonbird is a handheld device that takes a fundamental action, breathing, that has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, and make it easy to do. Consumers can place it in the palm of their hand and breathe along to its calming pace, and track the effects on their body via the app.

Nowatch, a new health innovation company, was founded to blend cutting-edge technology with the latest mental health science, with sensor technology from Philips to determine how physical activity can impact a person’s mental health.

Solutions to mental health challenges are not just digital. They are also coming with increasing strength in the form of food. Food Ingredients cites that a growing number of food and beverage launches will be positioned for mood and brain health, as 27%of US consumers report they cannot function because of high anxiety. The so-called “good mood food movement” is creating a new segment in the $78 billion functional food and beverage market.

Zak Williams, who suffered from mental health issues, lost his father, Robin Williams, to suicide. Zak and his wife created a line of chews and supplements called PYM (Prepare Your Mind) with ingredients to help consumers be proactive and take action to handle everyday stressors and life events that take a toll on mental health.

Mindright produces plant-based bars that are low in sugar, high in fiber and infused with adaptogens and nootropics, including ashwagandha, cordyceps and ginseng. These convenient forms with ingredients known to have positive impacts, make it easy to integrate into daily living.

Moving towards detection and prevention

Rather than focusing on treatment alone, new studies show that there may be ways to detect those with mental health issues. One study shows people with depression or bipolar disorder have significantly lower levels of a nerve growth factor in their blood than healthy controls. The potential exists for new treatments to utilize these levels to aid in monitoring and treating depression. Companies like empowerDx offer at-home blood tests, one of which claims to identify markers in your blood that can impact your mental health.

Image courtesy of empowerDX

Clearly there are a wide range of mental health challenges, and often there is no silver bullet no matter what the severity. But in these times of multiple global crises and rapid change across almost every area of life, innovators are making solutions to mental health issues more accessible and able to integrate into daily life. Cindy Hale, in our recent Compass Conversation, talked about progress being made in understanding the underlying metabolic, genetic and lifestyle components that might influence treatment for mental health disorders and help with prevention too.

While my immediate family is not experiencing any mental health issues, I am keenly aware that this could easily change. Thanks to the suggestion of a friend of mine, we started a family tradition at the end of every meal when we ask our daughters (and we participate too) to identify their rose, thorn, and bud–the best part of the day, worst part of the day, and what they’re looking forward to. With the mental health challenges all around us, I plan to use these end of day moments to listen even more carefully and observe in my own family to make sure we are having important conversations about our well-being.

While these mental health challenges are pervasive and challenging, it’s also a great time to connect with each other. At Compass, we look forward to addressing these challenges and help our clients deliver innovations that make a real difference in the mental health landscape. Reach out if we can help.

Lynda Ferrari

Lynda is a consumer marketing expert with a track record of successful U.S. and global product launches. She has created new product innovations across consumer wellness, from personal care to digital health. She is a founding partner of Compass Marketing.

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