How can we harness the technologies of today—and tomorrow—to expand access to mental health services?
In my 3-plus decades-long career, working to support and find innovative ways to improve the mental health of patients has always been my north star. During my journey, we have witnessed significant changes in how mental illnesses are perceived—a long-overdue and positive evolution that has been accelerating in recent years.
My own calling began when I started my career more than 35 years ago as a National Health Services Corps child psychiatrist in rural northeast Arkansas. I felt alone with the huge responsibility of helping an underserved population. The weight of this demand as a sole child psychiatrist serving a geographic area of more than 500,000 individuals was at times overwhelming.
During those 4 years, I treated thousands of children and families. Mental illness was highly stigmatized, and by the time a patient landed in my office, they were usually the most ill. I tried to make a difference and felt like I did, despite the odds stacked against me and others engaged in this effort. I often wonder what it would have been like if the technology we have now had existed then.
We are currently facing an unprecedented public health emergency—a mental health tsunami fueled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The incidence of mental illnesses has increased significantly in the past 3 years, disproportionately so in children. When individuals were isolated and sheltered in place, a unique opportunity arose to accelerate the use of already existing, but underutilized, technologies.
Although telehealth cannot fully replace some of the important aspects of brick-and-mortar resources, it is a way to make the experience feel less stigmatizing and engage individuals where they likely feel most comfortable: at home. More importantly, it is a means to create access to services that were previously out of reach for so many patients, including the geographically remote and the minority and disenfranchised populations, like those I served in Arkansas.
The pandemic also shone a light on the huge workforce shortage in mental health care in this country. According to a recent study, 60% of counties in the United States do not have a single psychiatrist.1 There are simply not enough practitioners to address the growing need. And although we have come a long way, those diagnosed with a mental illness continue to face stigma. It is long past time to eradicate the problem of stigma and mental health. Addressing the mental health crisis will require every federal, local, public, and private resource possible thrown against it—virtual or otherwise.
This is why I joined the Board of Directors of Project Healthy Minds: to help harness the technologies of today and tomorrow to expand access to much-needed mental health services and to campaign against persistent stigma. In a nutshell, Project Healthy Minds is a millennial- and Gen Z-driven mental health nonprofit startup that is akin to Expedia for access to mental health services. It addresses this lack of accessible mental health services by focusing on 3 key pillars:
This direct-to-consumer marketplace model is meant to meet individuals where they are and to offer them a 1-stop online shop, or a “roadmap” for finding and accessing services, including crisis hotlines, mental health practitioners, and other relevant treatment programs. And although this model is innovative, Project Healthy Minds is so much more than that. It is a nonprofit organization that started out fully bootstrapped with the help of millennial and Gen Z volunteers hoping to spearhead a movement that will shift perceptions that ultimately improve and save lives for those suffering in silence.
The work of Project Healthy Minds has borne fruit quickly, bringing together enthusiastic business leaders, celebrities, public officials, health care leaders, and other influencers to openly address the importance of mental health, without virtue signaling. The organization is also creating national standards to guide companies’ mental health efforts, which, according to a Project Healthy Minds study,2 is an area of disconnect between millennial and Gen Z employees’ expectations and what they are currently receiving from their employers.
If there was ever an inflection point to change the culture around mental health, it is now, and technology is our guiding light. With the US Surgeon General recently releasing a new framework for mental health and well-being in the workplace3 shortly following the 30th anniversary of World Mental Health Day, we have that institutional and mainstream spotlight that has been needed for such a long time.
We cannot let the buzz fade, especially following the winter holidays, which is a particularly triggering time for those struggling with mental health challenges.
It has been a long and winding journey for me since my experience in Arkansas. Being part of the Project Healthy Minds team has been exciting and inspiring.
Dr Herman is co-founder and chief medical officer of Metis Minds, Inc. and a member of the Project Healthy Minds Board of Directors. He is also a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a Fellow of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and a Lifetime Member of the American Medical Association.
1. New study shows 60 percent of U.S. counties without a single psychiatrist. New American Economy. News release. October 23, 2017. Accessed November 25, 2022. https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/0NYoC1wDnDuqR12oCLFwTd?domain=newamericaneconomy.org/
2. Hoffman D. A mental health revolution has arrived—and we need it now more than ever: 5 takeaways from Project Healthy Minds’ 2021 State of Mental Health Survey. Project Healthy Minds. October 7, 2021. Accessed November 25, 2022. https://www.projecthealthyminds.com/news/state-of-mental-health-survey-2nd-edition
3. Office of the Surgeon General. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being. U.S. Public Health Service. 2022. Accessed November 25, 2022. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/workplace-mental-health-well-being.pdf