In the wake of the pandemic, mental health has been receiving much attention…and money. According to research firm CB Insights, mental health startups took in a record $1.5 billion in venture capital funding last year. Why the big demand? It’s because mental health issues like anxiety and depression affect as many as 46 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 years old, according to a July study from the Centers for Disease Control. For this reason, many people are — finally — becoming more open about their problems. Even as its stigma subsides, mental health remains a cause of concern that is driving many employers to offer benefits that can help.

One possible option for businesses to consider: Woebot.

Woebot is a chatbot. But not like the typical chatbot used by a customer service department. It’s designed to build a bond with users by first inviting people to have a conversation and then (hopefully) drawing out a person’s issues so that they can be more quickly diagnosed and treated. Its technology is so promising that the company recently closed on $90 million in its second round of financing from a group of well-known venture capital firms.

“We’re at a moment when mental health issues are front and center in a global conversation, and there’s incredible momentum to apply cutting-edge approaches to help solve real human problems,” Woebot Health Chief Executive Officer Michael Evers said in a press release.

The company’s flagship chatbot leverages artificial intelligence and natural language processing to learn from millions of conversations it conducts annually so that it can “provide therapeutic encounters that are psychologically related, responsive to a person’s dynamic state of health, and targeted using tools from cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal disciplines.”

According to the company, which was founded in 2017, a significant large-scale study that it published earlier this year proved that digital chat technologies can “establish a therapeutic bond” and supported the idea “that AI and natural language processing technologies have the power to help solve fundamental industry problems related to scalability and access and play a pivotal role in the transformation of mental health care delivery.”

Woebot, along with its research partners at Stanford University, is working on various products that separately address adult, adolescent and maternal mental health as well as substance abuse. Its maternal mental health product, which is targeted to women with postpartum depression, received a Breakthrough Device Designation from the FDA, a program designed by the agency to enable faster access to technologies through quicker development, assessment and review.

Other services like Wysa, AbleTo and Talkspace provide online therapy help, mostly by connecting users to counselors. Platforms like Feel (which offers sensors tied to mobile devices that can pick up on anxiety and stress) and Sonde (which uses voice technology to pick up on a person’s risk of health conditions, including asthma, COPD, COVID-19, depression and anxiety) are also growing in popularity. None of these technologies, including Woebot, are a replacement for trained mental health professionals. But they can certainly play a big part in identifying and helping to address these issues.

If you’re running a small business, you have to be very aware of the growing — and now more visible — rise in the mental health issues your employees may be experiencing. And you have to provide them with help if you want to be competitive. Ask your health benefits provider about the services they offer.

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