A lot of strides have been made when it comes to mental health awareness. What used to be considered a taboo subject and shrouded in stigma is now increasingly treated as a serious illness and seen as a valid medical problem that directly affects physical health. Joan Low, the founder and CEO of Thoughtfull, is determined to keep it that way. Her digital company, based in Singapore, focuses on mental health, and empowers users to track and maintain their well-being through bite-sized coaching with certified mental health professionals.
“Today, people’s awareness and the general mental health literacy has definitely increased but where are falling short here in Asia is the fact that seamless access is still a problem, the market is very fragmented, there’s not much transparency and there are very little points to resources that are credible for people,” she shares.
Having spent the last 15 years abroad in North America, China, and most recently Hong Kong for six years where she worked as a banker at J.P. Morgan, Joan noticed a stark difference when it comes to how mental health is being dealt with in those countries in comparison to where we are at in Southeast Asia. “I realised what a big innovation and digital divide there was over there in mental health between where we could be, versus where we are here today. So that frustration of this divide was really one of the main driving factors of how Thoughtfull came about. There is so much good that technology can do, especially when it’s applied responsibly in healthcare, but it was just not done to that full extent here. So that was one of the main motivating factors for me to leave finance after all those years,” explains Joan.
Thoughtfull today is a digital mental health company that is focused on really making mental healthcare more seamless and affordable here in Asia and it does so based on both app-based and non-app based approaches.
“Our mobile app, ThoughtfullChat, empowers people to engage earlier, rather than later. If the crisis can be averted, then we want to prevent that. So, we provide a slew of resources where users can access self-driven tools for learning about mental health. It’s also a place where they can connect one-on-one, to a certified, either counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist, that’s trained for digital therapy and coaching. This is something that is quite different from traditional forms of counselling or therapy, where it’s usually a 60-minute session, and you kind of have to make sure everything you want to solve is done in that hour, right?” Joan explains.
“It’s also slightly different to how telemedicine is normally done. What we’ve done is really tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the everyday user now, who has multiple hats and obligations on their time, and that is always on the move. For us, it’s all about integrating with their everyday life as it is. ThoughtFullChat’s model is different in the sense that you can text or audio message your coach anytime, anywhere, and our coach will asynchronously check-in within 24 hours. So, it’s a very high touchpoint service. You don’t have to wait for two, three weeks before your appointment before you share your feelings and challenges. You can literally express yourself on a thought, an emotion, or an event that occurred, and work through it with your coach over time. Even if you don’t drop a text or audio message, your coaches will be checking in on you on a daily basis, Monday through Friday. So again, what we’re going for here is ongoing continuous care that’s easily integrated into your modern-day life,” she adds further.
However, this isn’t to say that digital consultations will replace traditional forms of mental healthcare anytime soon. Joan explains, “We are not here to replace conventional forms of therapy. In fact, we are here to help them scale up and work in tandem with the typical forms of counselling and psychotherapy. I think where the difference is that you’re trying to bring more insights and precision into the delivery of that.”
“Now, how do we do that? Well, not only do we have all the content for learning and the chat platform for coaching, but we also have ongoing trackers and daily tools that people can access, whether it is tracking your progress through your mood assessments, your thought journals, your clinical assessments for levels of stress, anxiety, depression. So think of this clinical assessment more as a weighing scale for your mind to understand where you currently are at. All of this is here to support anyone who might also need to go for full psychotherapy or counselling sessions. Where we really add and enhance the experience is the fact that we’re giving you a tool to have the ongoing support, even after your counselling session or in between them, and provide more tools and knowledge so that you can actually learn to build those coping mechanisms and also track your progress. All of this is very important for your coach and professional to actually be more precise because they have more insights on how you’re doing and how you’re progressing. So they, in turn, can be more timely about how they deliver care to you,” Joan explains.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on millions of jobs and devastating the lives of so many, this has marked a huge effect on people’s mental health. Now, more than ever, people need healthcare to be done in a safe and socially distanced manner. Mental health has gained a lot of focus because in the last 18 months, everyone at some point has experienced some form of extreme duress or anxiety, whether pandemic related or not. This has influenced Thoughtfull’s growth tremendously.
“Just to give you an idea, this time last year, we had four people, and now, we already have more than 15, and we’re probably going to be much more by the end of this year. So, we have been creating a lot of jobs along the way, all for a very good cause to drive for better mental healthcare,” says Joan.
“Also, to give you some context, what the World Health Organisation mandates as the ideal ratio of a mental health professional to a population in the country is one to 10,000. Currently, where we are in Malaysia is one to 100,000. We’re about 10 times under. That said, though, because of the inefficiencies of a very fragmented and manual mental health care ecosystem, even with the current professionals that we do have, they are not being optimised. This is really where ThoughtfullChat as a digital platform is trying to use technology for good to drive towards better efficiency for more seamless care.”
That’s one aspect of how Thoughtful is solving for the insufficient resources in mental health professionals. The other aspect lies in the fact that not everyone needs crisis intervention. “So the other thing that we’re doing through our app is also better triaging people based on the level of care and needs that they have. For those who probably don’t need the full 60 minutes of psychotherapy, we make sure that they have that ongoing support, without having to take all of the time from a clinician. So all in all, better triaging and also, a more efficient and effective mental healthcare,” Joan says, concluding the interview.
This article first appeared in The Peak Malaysia Issue 3/2021