World Mental Health Day: She Created An App To Provide On-Demand Counselling
STORY: Janice Tai
09 October 2020
Many of us young adults would have no qualms about splashing out $100 to $200 a month on a gym membership to keep ourselves physically fit. But when it comes to ensuring our mental health is in tip-top condition, would we be willing to do the same?
One millennial certainly hopes so. To cater to the sudden demand for text-based mental health coaching that reached its peak during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in May, Joan Low launched a subscription-based app called ThoughtFullChat.
How does ThoughtFullChat work?
For $169 a month, or roughly $5.60 a day (the price of a basic fast-food meal), you are free to text your assigned mental health coach at any time of the day should you need a listening ear or professional therapy and coaching.
These certified mental health professionals are on hand to support you, whether it is in the early morning hours before a big presentation at work, or late at night when some of us feel most alone.
The mental health coach will also check in with you daily from Monday to Friday to help you work towards your goals.
The brains behind this ThoughtFull initiative
Joan, formerly a banker at J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong for 6 years, founded the digital mental health startup called ThoughtFull upon experiencing firsthand the challenges of stigma, affordability and accessibility to quality mental health services after being a mental health caregiver herself for the last two decades.
Two years ago, she started her first line of business – ThoughtFull Education – a consulting arm that partners with educational institutions and organisations to raise mental health literacy through interactive programmes.
After working with thousands of people through ThoughtFull’s programmes, her team noticed the depth of mental health needs that were not being met.
“We started flagging one in three individuals to have severe, or extremely severe stress, anxiety or depression – this was amongst ‘your everyday high-performing’ individuals, mind you, not patients,” says Joan.
Yet these people would still be hesitant to work on their mental health, she noted, and a large part of it was due to the stigma of physically going to a professional. Another reason: people were just not putting in time or effort to engage their mental health in their daily schedule or lifestyle.
“Most people will try to make time between their Zoom meetings to exercise and build physical resilience for example, but they may not do that for their emotional wellbeing and psychological resilience,” adds the 32-year-old.
So her startup launched ThoughtFullChat earlier this year to connect users directly to certified mental health professionals for daily bite-sized coaching so that anyone – be it employees, students or stay-home parents – can work on their mental health anytime and anywhere.
Prevention is better than cure
According to a Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2016, one in seven in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. What’s more shocking: more than three-quarters of them did not seek any professional help.
There are many more people who do not have a mental health condition but still suffer from significant anxiety or burnout as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on without an end in sight.
“ThoughtFullChat also focuses on upstream prevention rather than curative interventions where an individual is encouraged to engage with their mental health even before experiencing a crisis. Hence, the demographic that usually subscribes to our services have vastly different needs to those that call an emergency hotline,” says Joan.
So far, half of ThoughtFullChat users are individuals, Joan reveals, while the rest are from companies and other organisations. AIA Malaysia is one of its corporate clients and they are providing this service as a free resource for thousands of their employees. In general, the majority of its users are working adults aged between 21 and 40, and 60 per cent of whom are female.
“Our users have reported improvements from reduction in their stress and anxiety levels, improved quality of sleep and increased ability to regulate their emotions. Anecdotally, users have reported feeling calmer, and being more motivated and assured in their decision making,” says Joan.
One millennial shares her experience using ThoughtFullChat
Ahead of World Mental Health Day (celebrated every 10 October), Wonderwall.sg speaks to Ashley, a consultant in her mid 20s who works at one of the Big Four accounting firms in Singapore, to find out more about her experience using ThoughtFullChat and to show you what you can expect.
How did you come to know about the app?
I first learned about it when a friend shared it on Instagram Stories.
What do you think about such a service?
I love the idea of daily bite-sized coaching. I believe in making tiny efforts every day to get a compound effect). It also suits my lifestyle as I don’t need to commit too much time in a day but also have access to my coach easily.
Do you have any pre-existing mental health condition?
No, I don’t.
When did you start using the app, and how frequently do you use it?
I started using it in June this year. I use it once a day, mainly on weekdays. My arrangement with my counsellor is that she messages me at night, and I reply her either on the same night or the next day.
Why did you decide to use the app compared to going to see a counsellor face to face or calling up a mental health helpline?
I find that traditional counselling is usually bound by time so I would have to prioritise the things I want to tackle with my counsellor. That is a challenge for me because I would not be able to give my counsellor the full picture which includes nitty-gritty details. As a result, those sessions would feel rushed and not be as productive as I expected. With the app, I don’t have to rush through things and I am able to share with my coach at my own pace.
Do you find that signing up for the app is similar to joining a gym?
Yes, I do! I think that physical and mental wellbeing are equally important. I was telling my friend that it is like physiotherapy. The common mentality around physiotherapy is that you only go for it when you have a problem or your body starts to hurt (like how you only seek therapy if you are facing a crisis or you are a troubled person), but I believe everyone needs physiotherapy because there is always something about your body that you can strengthen or work on and you need a physiotherapist or certified counsellor to guide you through the process.
Do you find the monthly subscription rate affordable?
I did find it expensive at first, but I was willing to pay for it because I really needed help and was able to make adjustments around my budget during the lockdown. However, compared to the cost of a face-to-face session with a counsellor, I find it affordable.
What are some of the issues you talk to the mental health coach about?
My personal relationship (romantic), work issues and family matters.
How has the mental health coach helped you with these issues?
She has encouraged me to look inward and helped me break down complex matters – both of which are difficult tasks to do by myself, especially with my mind being clouded. I have had many “lightbulb moments” with my coach, as she has given me fresh and new perspectives. I also appreciate that she is an unbiased third party who provides constructive feedback and gives suggestions on how to deal with my problems.
Do you find texting the coach every day troublesome?
At the start, it was quite a chore, especially at the end of a long work day, when the last thing I wanted to do was to reply to yet another message. I would also feel guilty (self-imposed guilt) for not replying to her. Hence, there were times I dreaded replying. I’m thankful that she has been very understanding since Day 1: I told her about the demands of my job and that I may go MIA because of work. Since then, on days when I don’t reply, she would drop me a note to check in and even reassure me that it is okay if I’m too busy to reply. She also shares motivational quotes with me, which I really appreciate. I have also learnt that it is completely okay to not reply on my days off.
Is it helpful to you to have access to a mental health coach any time during the day?
Yes, extremely. There was one night when I could not fall asleep as I was just so overwhelmed with thoughts. I typed out all my thoughts to my coach and felt instantly relieved, and fell asleep right after. My coach and I proceeded to process my thoughts the next day, which is something I really appreciate. It would have been a completely different experience if I had to do this with a face-to-face counsellor, as I would probably have had to wait till my next appointment to process the whole thing, and my thoughts and feelings would not have been the same or as raw by then.
What is your subscription plan with ThoughtFullChat?
I have switched up my subscription from monthly billing to trimonthly billing. I plan to be on the app indefinitely as I have integrated it as a part of my lifestyle.
What are some of the challenges in using this app?
Not being able to delete or edit messages.
What are some of the positive changes or benefits you have seen in yourself as you use the app?
As I have been able to process many internal issues and free up some “head space”, I have been able to focus better. I am able to see and acknowledge my past mistakes. I have also learned not to react with emotions but to respond more calmly with thoughts.
Do you feel the app matched you with a suitable coach? (The app uses its own algorithm to match mental health professionals with users based on the latter’s needs).
I wouldn’t say that my coach and I hit it off at the start. After all, we are two individuals who are getting to know each other. There was one time when I felt that my coach had jumped the gun and made certain assumptions that I was not comfortable with. I gave her feedback on how she could navigate the conversation better. Since then, my experience with my coach has been great. I now understand her style better, and she also knows what approach works better for me.