In my career spanning over 3 decades, working to support and find innovative ways to improve patients’ mental health has always been my lodestar. During my journey, we have seen significant changes in the way mental illness is perceived, an expected and positive evolution that has accelerated in recent years.
My calling began when I began my career more than 35 years ago as a National Health Services Corps child psychiatrist in rural northeast Arkansas. I felt alone with the enormous responsibility of helping a disadvantaged population. The weight of this claim as the sole child psychiatrist serving a geographic area of more than 500,000 people has been overwhelming at times.
During those 4 years, I treated thousands of children and families. Mental illness was highly stigmatized and when a patient came to my office, he was usually the sicker. I tried to make a difference and felt like I did, despite the odds stacking against me and others engaging in that endeavor. 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 by the COVID-19 pandemic. The incidence of mental illness has increased significantly over the past 3 years, disproportionately in children. When individuals were isolated and protected in place, a unique opportunity presented itself to accelerate the use of already existing but underutilized technologies.
While telehealth can’t completely replace some of the important aspects of physical resources, it’s a way to make the experience less stigmatizing and engage people where they’re likely to feel most comfortable: at home. More importantly, it is a means of creating access to services that were previously out of reach for so many patients, including geographically remote and disenfranchised minority populations, such as those I served in Arkansas.
The pandemic has also shed light on the huge shortage of the mental health care workforce in this country. According to a recent study, 60% of US counties do not have a single psychiatrist.1 There simply aren’t enough professionals to address the growing need. And while we’ve come a long way, those diagnosed with mental illness continue to experience the stigma. It has been a long time to eradicate the problem of stigma and mental health. Addressing the mental health crisis will require every possible federal, local, public and private resource thrown at it, virtual or otherwise.
This is why I joined the board of directors of the Healthy Minds Project: to help leverage today’s and tomorrow’s technologies to expand access to much-needed mental health services and to campaign against the persistent stigma. Simply put, Project Healthy Minds is a millennial and Gen Z-led non-profit mental health startup that is similar to Expedia in access to mental health services. Address this lack of accessible mental health services by focusing on 3 key pillars:
- Building a single, free and easy-to-use mental health digital marketplace to make finding mental health resources easier and faster
- Designing a cross-platform anti-stigma campaign with culture creators and influencers
- Engage the business community to expand support for employee mental health
This direct-to-consumer marketplace model aims to meet people where they are and offer them a one-stop online store or “roadmap” for finding and accessing services, including crisis hotlines, mental health professionals, and other relevant treatment programs. And although this model is innovative, Project Healthy Minds is much more. It’s a non-profit that started fully bootstrapping with the help of millennial and Gen Z volunteers hoping to spearhead a movement that will change perceptions that will ultimately improve and save lives for those who suffer in silence.
Project Healthy Minds’ work quickly paid off, bringing together enthusiastic entrepreneurs, celebrities, public officials, healthcare leaders, and other influencers to address the importance of mental health openly, without virtue cues. The organization is also creating national standards to guide companies’ mental health efforts, which, according to a study by Project Healthy Minds,2 it’s an area of disconnect between the expectations of millennial and Gen Z employees and what they’re currently receiving from their employers.
If there’s ever been a tipping point for changing the culture around mental health, it’s now, and technology is our guiding light. With the US Surgeon General recently releasing a new framework for workplace mental health and wellbeing3 shortly after the 30th anniversary of World Mental Health Day, we have that institutional and mainstream spotlight that has been needed for so long.
We can’t let the buzz fade away, especially after the winter holidays, which is an especially triggering time for those struggling with mental health issues.
It has been a long and bumpy journey for me since my experience in Arkansas. Being part of the Project Healthy Minds team has been exciting and inspiring.
Dr. Hermann is co-founder and chief medical officer of Metis Minds, Inc. and a member of the board of directors of Project Healthy Minds. 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 life member of the American Medical Association.
1. A new study shows that 60% of US counties do not have a single psychiatrist. New American Economy. Press 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 conclusions from Project Healthy Minds 2021 State of Mental Health Survey. Healthy Minds Project. 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 US surgeon general’s framework for mental health and workplace wellbeing. United States Public Health Service. 2022. Accessed November 25, 2022. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/workplace-mental-health-well-being.pdf