Depression led entrepreneur to create text-based mental health counselling app
This is part two of a two-part series focusing on how digital solutions are changing how Canadians can find support for mental health. You can find part one here.
While Sam Duboc was on the board of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health foundation in the early 2000s, he learned all about the theoretical aspects of mental health.
But it wasn’t until he received a call on Oct. 18, 2011 about the death of a family member, followed by a slew of difficult life experiences, that he found himself experiencing mental illness himself.
“I woke up depressed, like really depressed,” Duboc told Global News.
Duboc, a successful serial entrepreneur who founded Air Miles and not-for-profit Pathways to Education Canada among others, went searching to find help. But he said it was difficult to find effective, affordable and immediate mental health care.
“I thought … I don’t have a lot of barriers. It must be hard for somebody who doesn’t have the financial wherewithal or doesn’t have the benefits at work. Somebody who is in an hourly job, has a boss to answer to. I lived in a city so I had a lot of psychologists,” he said.
“So, I’m thinking ‘wow’ it’s really hard for me and I’m in the perfect sweet spot.”
According to Addictions and Mental Health Ontario, people routinely have to wait six months to well over a year to get help in the province.
Duboc and his wife decided to take matters into their own hands and in their own words, “do something about it.”
At first, they partnered with CBT Associates to expand the private clinical psychology practice to become the largest in Ontario. And from there, they created the digital app Beacon, which offers therapist-assisted cognitive behavioural therapy.
The way that Beacon works is that a user logs on and completes an online assessment – a series of questions that uses artificial intelligence to allow the program to provide the client with proper personalized care sessions and protocols. The patient is then assigned a Beacon therapist who guides them through the protocols using text-based chat over a secure network.
“What we find is people like to do a lot of the work on their own and if they have a question on a Tuesday night, we’re back to them by Wednesday afternoon,” Duboc said. “Where today, if you saw a psychologist on Tuesday and then you went home and did your homework, you’d have a question on Wednesday night, but the psychologist wouldn’t answer till the following Tuesday.”
“You lose a week, you lose thought process — this [Beacon] allows you to keep going on it.”
Beacon can be covered by insurance and is cost-friendly at $500 for 12 weeks, with the option of extending.
On top of alleviating wait times both before and during the therapeutic process, Beacon attempts to cut down on the stigma involved in getting help because of it being a text-based system rather than video counselling like other digital solutions offered.
“The No. 2 reason people don’t access care is because they don’t want to talk to someone, they don’t want to face the ‘walk of shame,’ as someone once said of walking into a psychologist’s office. It eliminates all of those barriers.” Duboc said, adding it also helps those who may feel uncomfortable or fear in-person or face-to-face therapy.
Duboc also said Beacon allows for therapists to be able to see more clients in one day, due to the nature of the program. While video counselling includes the same approach as Beacon of eliminating geography and extreme wait times, therapists using those programs can still only see so many people in one day.
“We really tried to design Beacon to make it so you can massively scale the effort using the same amount of people that you have today, professionals can see five, six, seven times the number of people in any given week because of the technology,” he said.
Some of the concern that arises around digital solutions for mental health surrounds those who may be in crisis or who may be suicidal.
While Natalie Roach, mental health coordinator in Workplace Wellbeing Services at Ryerson University, believes that digital solutions are effective and necessary, she said they should not be used as a crisis support.
“I would not call digital and any kind of online solutions crisis supports — that does need to be usually an in-person call to a crisis centre or 911 on the very extreme end,” she told Global News.
Maura O’Keefe, clinical coordinator for the centre for student development and counselling at Ryerson University echoed the sentiments of Roach. O’Keefe said digital solutions need to make sure that if there is an immediate safety concern, the platform has to have “good practice” in place as to how they respond.
However, Beacon is upfront about not being a crisis centre. Duboc said if someone undergoing an assessment appears to be in crisis, they will not be let on to Beacon, but will be sent information about crisis hotlines or provide them with the closest CBT Associates clinic, where they can find the treatment they need.
“Beacon was really set up to use technology as an enabler that would allow us to massively scale the provision of psychological services for those that are mild to moderate to moderately severe,” Duboc said, adding he is aware that Beacon may not work for all.
“It’ll work for a big chunk of people, if not, then they can make the decision to step up their care to a more intensive in-person therapy. We strongly believe in what’s called the step approach to care,” he said.
“The digital [technology] enables the solution — it isn’t the solution.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. For mental health programs and services around Canada, please refer to the list here.
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