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  • Writer's pictureTeodora Pavkovic

How Psychologists can help Mental Health Start-ups create Humane and Meaningful Digital Remedies

This blog post was originally published on Medium by Therapists in Tech, a community of mental health experts on the frontier of the digital mental health evolution. Please click here to view the original article. Thank you for publishing this piece TinT!


A work desk covered in technology devices like laptops, smartphones and headphones as well as snacks and drinks, with three people whose hands are visible as they are holding some of these devices and working on them


As a result of not only Covid but the long-standing social and economic challenges that this pandemic has brought into a harsh light, we find ourselves in a moment in time when people are in need of mental health assistance more than perhaps ever before, and yet many are [still] not able to access this assistance for a multitude of reasons. Given how omnipresent personal mobile devices are and how much time we have all been spending inside of their virtual worlds of late, the question of why not use this medium as a conduit for delivering this desperately needed assistance is an entirely legitimate one.

As a psychologist, I embrace any effort to discover as many ways as possible to make it easier for people to ask for help and receive it, while also cautioning us all to proceed carefully and mindfully along this digital path. Recent findings from the United Kingdom report that up to 80% of the nearly 5,000 healthcare apps reviewed do not meet the country’s proper National Health Service (NHS) standards, with some of the biggest issues being poor information, lack of security updates and insufficient awareness of regulatory requirements. As worrying as that finding may be, it is also important to note that what we usually find when we look to these start-up founders is well-meaning individuals who are passionate about addressing very real and very painful problems — often ones they have personally battled — but they simply don’t have the background and training needed to address the deeper nuances that have to be taken into account.

This is why I am incredibly excited and hopeful about a new role that has emerged for us psychologists — the role of contributors to and shapers of this emerging space of technology-based psychological services. Not only am I excited and hopeful, but thankful as well, for the opportunities being created by communities such as Therapists in Tech, ones that bring us together with the founders of mental health startups and give us a window into their entrepreneurial process and where we can play a key role in it.


At one such recent Shark Tank-style pitching event — but much nicer because we are psychologists, after all — I was moved by the personal stories several of the founders shared as their raison d’être: wanting to enable a global exchange of empathy that can help close divides, a desire to make it easier for teens to truly succeed at psychotherapy, and a nostalgia for showing our near-and-dear how much we care for them through gift-giving.

What I also found though, was that the deep and raw humanity that inspired these entrepreneurs was at times mixed with an opaque view of some fundamentally important concepts within the mental health field, and so I decided to put together this list of the top 5 ways in which I believe we can help mental health start-up founders build humane, durable and truly helpful products:

1. We can help define the problem your start-up is solving for. Improving “wellness,” “wellbeing” and “mental health” means different things to different people, but more importantly, clinicians and patients alike find it hard to identify with these ‘macro’ concepts. If instead you use language like: “reducing anxious thoughts” or “postpartum blues,” “improving motivation” or “reducing perfectionism,” the problem immediately becomes relatable, well-defined and something us clinicians will know exactly how to help your start-up with. Start from a much narrower and more ‘micro’ place of defining what it is exactly that you want people to have more [or less] of in life, and go from there. Really drill down and create a clear and vibrant image for yourself of what a person’s life would look like with your product in it. This will help you go from: “My app helps you improve wellbeing through mindful breathing” to “My app teaches you to control your stress response for greater calm and better decision-making.”

2. We can help you think critically about research. When using metrics and data from research studies, keep in mind that the information from one domain of psychological or mental health research can’t be generalized and simply transplanted onto another, seemingly related one. Specificity — again — is crucial. For example, if you are building a meditation-based product, using data from studies looking at stress-reduction in general as proof-of-concept is not appropriate — the reason being that meditation does many things other than reduce stress and stress-reduction can be achieved by utilizing many different methods, not just meditation. You first need to decide what your desired outcome is — and it may well be stress-reduction — and then look for studies that directly and specifically address the application of, in this particular case, meditation in stress reduction.

3. We can help you validate your ideas. The backbone of a mental health start-up needs to be about more than just a catchy idea. Given that many start-up founders in this broad wellness space come from a background in technology, product design, business and/or marketing, the following are often a launching pad for their wellness-based ideas: “This sounds cool,” or “We can build an enticing story around this,” or “This new form of tech will be a hit so let’s use it to build something,” or “This will be a fun experience for people.” None of these are necessarily bad — and this approach certainly worked for the founders of Calm — but it is incredibly important to have more than just this as a guiding principle. Outside of your product or platform being cool, fun and innovative, what are the specific psychological, emotional, and relational outcomes you want for your users? How will using your service actually change them long-term, and in a meaningful way?

4. We can help you with ethical and humane design. Consider how your product answers the following: “Does my product promote human connection, or increase the solitary use of mobile devices and feelings of isolation? How ‘persuasive’ are the design elements of my platform? Are they likely to eventually ‘hook’ my users to the app, when all they should really be ‘hooked’ to is the desired outcome that brought them here in the first place?” Many of those seeking mental health assistance are likely spending less time in direct human contact as is (interacting with an app instead of a therapist as they are), so it can be incredibly beneficial to offer them guidance on and even encouragement around proactively seeking out human connection — perhaps in the form of “prosocial prompts’’ built into your product. As another example, if your product is designed to address anxiety or related issues like obsessive-compulsive behavior or ruminative thinking, the above questions will be absolutely vital because these patterns of behavior and thinking are particularly vulnerable to elements of persuasive design and gamification. How you address these questions will mean the difference between creating a[nother] piece of persuasive technology that isolates people vs creating a humane tool that truly improves a person’s life.

5. We can help you align your product with principles of accessibility, inclusivity and sensitivity. Many therapists have a background in wellness programming, reducing barriers to care, increasing access, and improving engagement. Some of us also specialize in understanding neurodiversity, disability, anti-racism, sexism (and many other -isms), as well as cross-cultural applications. To begin with, we can help you assess where your company is at in terms of embracing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Some of the key questions in this process are: Is your company contemplating embracing anti-racism and challenging oppression? If it is in a state of contemplation, then we can help ‘nudge’ it towards action. We can help with many of the elements of DEIB in addition to your corporate social responsibility strategy, and improve the satisfaction and retention of your employees from marginalized backgrounds. Ultimately, we can provide the support and guidance to ensure that your products meet the needs of diverse users and help you measure the success of these DEIB strategies.


If you are a mental health start-up founder, I thank you for dedicating your attention to this article and showing that you care about these important issues. Know that there is an expanding community of therapists out here that cares deeply about what you are creating and is eager to participate in your tech world — we want to help, and are ready to contribute to this new and exciting frontier of modern-day mental health entrepreneurship.


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