The Mental Health Uprising: Startups Reap Benefits Of Post-Pandemic Blues.

23 June, 2021 | Tenzin Norzom

The social taboo around mental health and wellness seems to be disappearing in India with a large number of people emerging to talk about it and seek help. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear are triggering new mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones, prompting employers to provide mental health and wellness support to their employees.

McKinsey estimates the global wellness market to be worth over $1.5 trillion in 2021, with an annual growth of 5 to 10 percent. Indian mental health and wellness startups have garnered over US$ 28.24 in investments – the highest in 2021 in the last decade.

 The investment came in just three rounds while the highest investment made earlier in the segment was in 2019 at around US$ 12.36 in seven rounds of funding.

According to market experts, it’s not bad for a country that ranks 139 out of 149 countries in the Happiness Index. Anxiety disorders in adults have increased from 11 percent in Jan-Jun, 2019 (NHIS) to 41.1 percent in January 2021 (Household Pulse Survey). They predict that the growth in the segment is fuelled by corporates hiring mental and wellness startups for their employees to shun the stigma and get help whenever required. Human Resource departments in companies are even chalking out special budgets for the segment since last year.

In 2021, employers are investing most in mental health (88 percent), telemedicine (87 percent), stress management/resilience (81 percent), mindfulness and meditation (69 percent), and COVID-19 risk intake/wellness passport (63 percent) programs. With three out of five rising stars closely linked to mental health, it is clear that companies are extremely focused on and dedicated to supporting the mental well-being of employees. These programs have been growing in popularity in recent years, and the unique challenges created by COVID-19 have only accelerated the demand for mental health solutions.

One of the investors on the condition of anonymity said, “Technology has turned out to be a boon. Without even leaving your comfortable home, you can now access essential healthcare required for your mental wellbeing either through websites or mobile apps. Moreover, startups are offering different kinds of options like talking via phone or text to help people break their inner inhibitions and express their emotions.” He added that the rising anxiety and pressures due to the ‘new normal’ are making these startups a promising bet.

However, Kanika Agarwal, founder of Startup Mindpeers told Outlook, “I am going to play the devil’s advocate here. The truth is, investors in India are still not convinced of the scalability of mental health startups. This is because the businesses that have been in the mental health space for the last five-six years were not able to scale”.

Agarwal blames this on the fact that they were traditional businesses. They had therapy as their foundation but therapy alone isn’t enough to scale. “We don’t have enough mental health professionals and facilities, mainly due to stigma. Currently, there is some scope for new models that are coming in and investors are exploring more. But it still is a very nascent industry. Investors are trying to learn a lot about it, especially from mental health tech founders,” she added.

According to data available, the three top mental health and wellness providers in India’s startup ecosystem are Ultrahuman (which provides meditation practice for mind and body transformation), Whysa (an AI-based chatbot for managing mental health), and the Inner Hour (which provides online counseling for psychological problems).

Seema Rekha, Managing Director, Antarmanh says, “Investors are betting high on technology-driven mental health startups for its exponential growth curves. The potential for tech-driven mental health services user base is as strong as Google services users. Technology-driven mental health services are growing manifold post-pandemic. Users seek information, knowledge, audio-video resources and chats, brief calls and face to face to sessions later if required.”

Antarmanh is primarily into corporate wellness. They are getting enquiries from many corporate, government organisations, schools, and universities for their services and interestingly new EAP organisations for outsourcing. Their free helplines have registered a severe spike in mental health challenges faced by senior citizens and teenagers due to lockdown. The number of calls received by the helpline has grown over 12 times post-Covid.

The global corporate wellness market size is today was valued at USD 52.8 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.0 percent from 2021 to 2028. Moreover, from 2016 to 2020, the number of individual sessions increased 66 percent on mental wellness applications. Another Corporate wellness startup is NYOU. Its Co-founder Sonal Gadhvi and B Bhuvaneshwarii say, “We work closely with promoters, management, senior leaders, and core teams, with a unique combination of consulting and training programs. Our 6 pillar approach is designed to target each element of personal transformation based on our unique SEIIS Model- Spiritual Quotient, Emotional Quotient, Intelligence Quotient, Image Quotient, Social Quotient – so you can take charge, and begin to lead a truly extraordinary life.”

Kanika added, “Our highest customer base right now is people between 24-40 years. These are mostly professionals who are struggling both with their personal and work life. These are people now who have come to terms with the fact that there is going to be no work-life balance. They will need to learn how to take out time from their schedules for their own personal lives and most of these people are at an early intervention stage. This means they are not going through anything clinical right now but they are on the verge of getting on to the other side which is the treatment side. So a whole lot of us are catering to these people who are on the preventive side, early intervention.”

Graphic 1 Yearly funding of Mental health and weliness startups
Graphic 2 Mental Health Startups by year founded