A group chat that's good for your mental health - Technical.ly Baltimore

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May 31, 2017 12:46 pm

A group chat that’s good for your mental health

The messaging app from Sunrise Health is looking to help more people get needed treatment. It relies on chat and AI, and is quickly racking up national interest.

Sunrise Health cofounder Ravi Shah pitches at the JHU Social Innovation Lab forum, April 2017.

(Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Ravi Shah watched a friend struggle with depression even as she got treatment.

“Even in therapy, the isolation and loneliness in between sessions was crippling her,” he said.

Working as an EMT, Shrenik Jain saw how poorly managed mental health played a role in emergency calls. It wasn’t limited to the patients. A fellow first responder developed post traumatic stress disorder, and others struggled with alcoholism. But they wouldn’t use the counseling that departments put in place.

After Jain, Shah and Satya Prateek met as students at Johns Hopkins, they formed a startup to bring tech to therapy.

To help his friend, Shah set out to develop a group chat app. That way, she could get support in between sessions from peers. That became the foundation for Beacon Health, which rebranded as Sunrise Health this month.

A pair of key realizations guided the development.

Even when moderated by a therapist, Shah found that users of such apps still shied away from group chat sessions.

“No one talked on it until they gave users anonymity,” he said of one such app. So they incorporated pseudonyms.

Another reality was that abuse could also emerge in the group chats. Drawing on experience with natural language processing, the team set out to create algorithms that could detect and remove any malicious and toxic language. It also recognizes potential emergencies.

In its current form, the app groups users with five to seven people after a one-on-one assessment. The chat is always-on, and also provides access to voice calls with a therapist if needed.

The combination of features “allows people to distance themselves and communicate in a no-pressure environment,” Jain said.

Along with improving the experience for people who are already undergoing therapy, Sunrise Health is also looking to reach people who have a mental health condition but aren’t undergoing treatment. The proportion of people who don’t get treatment is actually the larger number, Jain said.

The company plans to sell to institutions and agencies on a SaaS model, and provide the services to patients for free. Jain said the company has letters of intent signed with local governments as well as hospitals, and the company is looking to keep validating its technology.

The team has received about $160,000 between funding from the Abell Foundation, a host of business plan competition wins and in-kind computing support. Sunrise also participated in the most recent cohort of Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab.

After a pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York this month, the startup was also accepted into the latest cohort of MassChallenge. While the cofounders are heading to Boston, Jain said most of the team members working on the startup and the company headquarters will remain in Baltimore.

Organizations: Social Innovation Lab
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