Mental health has dominated the news in recent years, from weak assessments of Europe’s mental health institutions to mass shootings to celebrity suicides. Each story underscores the need for mental health support — and the consequences of not making such support accessible.
And the need for it may be stronger than previously believed: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that nearly 44 million American adults suffer from mental illness each year, translating to one in five adults experiencing a mental illness in any given year. NAMI correlates this with the high rate of addictions, homelessness, and crime plaguing those with mental health issues, and it notes that suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
With mental health support so badly needed, why do progressive nations have such a hard time supplying it? Part of it has to do with identification, and part of it has to do with accessibility. In an era when we rely on technology to fuel much of our work and medical care, we’ve been reluctant to apply technology to the problem of improving access to mental health support — and UMA Health is looking to change that.
Creating a Marketplace for a Silent Need
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only 40 percent of those suffering from anxiety issues and related disorders have disclosed this to their employers — despite these issues impacting their work performance and relationships with their colleagues. That means those suffering from mental illness are in a catch-22: They’re afraid disclosure will make their bosses and co-workers view them as weak, but they’re endangering their livelihood through the behaviors their mental health challenges cause.
This is unfathomable to Dave Kerpen, the serial entrepreneur who recently became CEO of UMA Health. Kerpen’s father has chronic bipolar disorder that’s led him to spend the past three decades in and out of psych wards in New York. Kerpen says many hesitate to tell their employers for fear of judgment, but it gets in the way of peak performance, which should be the ultimate goal of both the employer and the employee.
“I’ve always believed that mental health isn’t about those who are sick vs those who are well — it’s about all of us improving our happiness, security, sense of safety and self-worth,” he says. “It’s about all of us becoming focused on who we are and what we want to get out of life and give to this world.”
Thus, he wanted to help build UMA Health, an online marketplace that connects people to mental health professionals and executive coaches, offering transparent information on costs, specialties, locations, availability, and ratings. The platform operates outside insurance processing, making it easy for patients to schedule and pay for appointments in one place. It also removes big barriers preventing those with mental health conditions from seeking help: Will there be a paper trail? Do I need a referral to see a specialist? How do I know this provider can even help me?
Eliminating Barriers to Care
Kerpen says he endured the struggle firsthand while searching for a new therapist after his longtime therapist moved away, and he was frustrated by what he found: a lack of transparency about rates, lengthy phone call loops, and a time-consuming online search that made even getting help feel cumbersome.
He believes that this difficulty, combined with the sheer frequency of mental health challenges, should encourage health professionals and private businesses to find ways to smooth the path to treatment and remove the stigma. “Managing mental health appointments should be as simple as getting an Uber,” Kerpen says.
UMA is extending its services to companies aiming to improve their productivity. Its UMA for Business program enables employers to purchase discounted stipends for executives and employees seeking mental health care or career coaching. Kerpen says giving the UMA dollars directly to employers removes the fear of being punished for pursuing help for mental health — it emphasizes the forward-thinking perspective of businesses looking to help people before problems arise.
And that also highlights the fact that everyone could use a mental health boost, not just those treating an “illness.” Kerpen says, “We’re all living on a spectrum of mental health, meaning there’s always room to move forward. We want to help those who’ve felt stuck at 30 and those who want to move from 95 to 100.”
UMA believes the long-term impact is positive for both employees and employers. “Employees feel their development and well-being are prioritized, which keeps them going,” Kerpen says. “And employers remain competitive in their recruitment and retention efforts, being seen by both employees and candidates as providing a supportive environment.”
UMA is looking to expand nationwide, and its free membership will help its expansion. Both consumers and mental health care providers or professional coaches can join the platform at no cost, and therapists have already applauded its elimination of administrative headaches: Aplana Choudhury, a licensed mental health counselor in New York, says she’s shifted to using the platform for all her clients, both those obtained through UMA and those who worked with her prior, because it enables them to focus on their work, not administrative concerns.
In addition to accepting HSA cards and extending free membership, the company is offering $100 in credits for future appointments to those who sign up. Kerpen says, “We simply want to get people in touch with the providers who can get them where they want to go and keep them feeling as healthy and happy as possible along the way.”
Technology has been applied to nearly every other aspect of our existence, but many remain hesitant to apply it to something as nebulous and feelings-centered as mental health. But, as UMA proves, technology may enable us to push many barriers out of the way and get exactly what we need: accessible mental health care for all.