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Start-ups: the future of mental healthcare in India?

Digital technology start-ups have the potential to transform healthcare in India for the better. At least one entrepreneur, prompted by the suicide of her hostel mate, is trying to harness that energy to improve the country’s mental health.

Several companies have already been successful in bringing so-called ‘digital health’ to the country, utilising features such as telemedicine and apps to make healthcare more accessible and affordable to millions of Indians, especially those living in rural areas.

Five percent of the Indian population – equating to roughly 50 million people – suffer from mental illness to some degree according to “conservative estimates.” Despite the numbers, the Lancet states that only 1 in 10 Indians with mental illness, according to The Indian Express.  There a number of reasons why. There is a stigma attached to mental health problems in India which makes many reluctant to seek help. Further, there is a huge lack of staffing and funding, as Health Issues India has noted before.

Start-ups could present a solution to this problem, at least in part. The Times of India, calling mental health care “an untapped chance for start-ups”, said that digital technology could provide “a cost-effective solution to help address the gaps in mental healthcare, while simultaneously overcoming the stigma attached.” It suggested that digital technology could “help screening of mental illnesses, identification of risk factors, behaviour change communication in cases of depression and substance abuse, remote patient support and inventory management.”

YourDost – named by Tech in Asia as one of four rising start-ups in India – is an example of what digital tech start-ups can achieve in improving the delivery of mental healthcare. It was founded by Richa Singh in December 2014, in collaboration with Puneet Manuja, Prakhar Verma, and Satyajeet Nandekar. The company was partly started as a response to the suicide of Singh’s university roommate, who felt unable to discuss the intense pressure she was under before taking her own life:

“When I was at IIT Guwahati, my hostel mate committed suicide. She was

worried about her placements. This could have been avoided if we knew

what she was going through….seeking mental counselling is a huge taboo

in our society. Seeking support is considered a sign of weakness. Most of the

times we keep our problems to ourselves because we are not very

comfortable accepting our vulnerabilities.”

In November 2015, the site secured Rs 2.5 crore (400,000 USD) in angel funding. At that time, it employed a team of 75 experts and had 10,000 registered users. In June 2016, SAIF partners invested $1 million into the venture. By then, the site employed 350 counsellors, who were consulted by 800 people daily.

Contact details for mental health support in India can be accessed here. 

If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit your nearest hospital or contact AASRA on 91-22-27546669 or Sneha India on 91 44 24640050 helpline. A list of other suicide helplines can be accessed here.

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