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Tech for Mental Health In a Time of Isolation

People raising their hands who have friends or family with Covid-19, during Techonomy's recent online roundtable panel on tech for sanity. Panelists include Jeremiah Owyang, top row second from right, Miranda Pollard, far left second row, and Boaz Gaon, next to Pollard.

How much anxiety are you feeling during the virus crisis? Wisdo, a community support and mental health startup based in Israel that operates in the U.S. and the UK, finds that people who are anxious about coronavirus say these are the top five reasons, in order:

       -seeing virus news all over social media

       -learning about the virus

       -checking news excessively

       -feeling terror

       -not being able to escape corona-anxiety

Wisdo CEO Boaz Gaon was one of three panelists on the second of Techonomy’s new series of online Zoom roundtables. (Video below.) The session surveyed tech tools and apps to help people stay mentally balanced and connected with others, and featured the work of two helping organizations. (The roundtables take place every Friday at 11am Eastern U.S. time. Next week we host one of the world’s most outspoken and eloquent experts on advertising, global affairs, and economics–Sir Martin Sorrell.)

Adding to Gaon’s data about people’s state of mind now was Miranda Pollard, a data scientist at New York-based Crisis Text Line (CTL), a longstanding and hugely-important service that connects anyone who texts in with trained volunteer counselors, who themselves respond in texts. (It has proven its value especially in helping intervene when people show suicidal ideation.) 

Like Wisdo, CTL’s clients tend to be young and tech-savvy, but they, too, are encountering extreme stress right now. Texting volume is up almost 50% in the past two weeks, Pollard said, with texters’ anxiety getting more intense, and data analysis showing stronger “sentiment language.” Words like “panic” and “fear” are becoming more common. And interestingly, the top U.S. state for CTL conversations related to coronavirus is not one you might have guessed. Pennsylvania residents are mentioning the disease at twice the rate of those from any other state. Could this portend a looming influx of cases?

But CTL, which constantly analyzes its vast database to understand trends in mental health, also can say who and what young people are turning to for effective support and connection. During this crisis it is “friends,” “pets,” and “mom,” in that order. And another encouraging sign is that the rate of new volunteer signups at CTL is skyrocketing. Over the last month the number of applications to get trained to counsel texters has surged 9X–as many as 300 on some recent days.

The third panelist Friday was Jeremiah Owyang, whose Kaleido Insights specializes in analyzing and consulting on the burgeoning field of tech and apps for wellness, sanity, and health. Owyang studies services aiming to using digital tools to help people stay healthy in all kinds of ways. He says four basic types have emerged – for the mind, the body, connecting with community, and to alter your physical space. 

Owyang said meditation software is an area of growth. One such company he’s impressed with is Headspace, currently offering free accounts to health care workers. He appeared wowed by what he learned about the approach and growth of Wisdo, which has only offered paid accounts for four months but is seeing rapid growth. (On principle it rejects advertising support.) Owyang said Facebook usage in the U.S. is up 50%, suggesting a massive desire for personal connection of whatever sort we can find (he was formerly a social media analyst). And he couldn’t help also mentioning a company called PhoneSoap — one of a number now selling little boxes that sanitize your phone by immersing it in ultraviolet light.

Owyang also spoke about Woebot, a company with a service that’s a kind of automated hybrid of CTL and Wisdo, using machine-based chat to counsel people. 

That pointed to a kind of sub-theme for the entire conversation – machine learning underlies many of the most valuable products that are helping keep us sane. Both CTL and Wisdo use it to help understand, track and improve dialogues with customers and clients. 

In a crisis we find ourselves more open-minded to radical solutions, and less hesitant to turn for help to anyone or anything that might offer it. As may happen in many areas, tech for mental and emotional health could “cross the chasm” during this unprecedented period of social isolation and sequestration. Boaz, Owyang, and Pollard helped techonomists better understand what’s coming.

Speaker Slides & Follow Up Information

During our digital roundtable, we polled our online audience. The results (below) showed that contrary to usual reports, a large majority are turning to social media as an effective substitute of connection in a time of isolation.

Disclosure: Jim McCann is chairman of Techonomy Media and also of 1-800-FLOWERS, which has invested in Wisdo.

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