The statistics surrounding mental healthcare in the U.S. are stark: of the nearly 53 million Americans with a mental health illness, only 46% have accessed mental health services.

Companies are suffering too, with the World Health Organization reporting that lost productivity for the global economy due to anxiety and depression equates to a missing $1 trillion in revenues.

For those who work for companies that offer healthcare plans the outlook is more hopeful: 78% of organizations currently offer mental health resources, and 94% of HR professionals believe that offering mental health resources can improve the overall health of employees.

The only caveat however is access to mental health services, something Kintsugi, a new mental healthcare app is hoping to tackle.

New perspective

Developed by Berkeley-based entrepreneurs and engineers Grace Chang and Rima Seiilova-Olson, the AI-driven Kintsugi uses voice biomarker software to detect signs of depression and anxiety in just 20 seconds of free-form speech.

Crucially, the model is language-agnostic and uses vocal biomarkers that are most predictive of clinical depression and anxiety, irrespective of language, dialect or accent — meaning it can be used in workplaces globally.

Named after an ancient Japanese art form of kintsugi, which involves repairing broken pieces of ceramic by joining them back together with gold enamel, Chang was inspired by the symbolism when she learned about it during a trip to Japan.

“In the repair and restoration of something, you can make it that much more beautiful. It gave me enough courage to start this new endeavor to address being able to provide access to mental healthcare for everyone,” she explains.

“I had challenges trying to access mental health care through my provider,” she says. “For both of us who are engineers, we saw this problem through a different lens, not as clinicians, who as we know definitely want to be able to help their patients. We saw this as mostly an infrastructure problem where you have so many people trying to jam through that front door, but not a lot of visibility as to who is severely depressed, who is low to moderate. If we could provide some visibility at that bottleneck, maybe we would serve to improve having access to mental healthcare.”

Addressing the issue

Although Kintsugi has been in development for several years, Chang believes that the pandemic has made mental healthcare a lot more prevalent, and employers have been forced to give it more thought as there is a shortage of specialists that can address mental health care issues.

“I think some of the challenges are that an employer may not have visibility or the ability to allocate the right resource for an individual. Often employers will put a few different solutions in front of their employees from meditation applications to knowing they have access to employee assistance program benefits, to access to therapists — but it’s not very easy to navigate,” she says.

Chang hopes that in 2023 it will be able to offer a full end-to-end service where users will not only get a diagnosis, but a treatment plan too.

“We have the ability to potentially transform the field of mental health by giving it some objectivity and measurement, but also this bears a lot of responsibility that we design that in an ethical way; in a way that serves the needs of the patients. It’s a hard line to walk. But it’s something that’s very meaningful — and that’s what matters.”

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