Startups

Could an app bring community-based mental health services with the ease of a swipe?

HouseCall Wisconsin founder and CEO Montrèal Cain discusses MERA, the startup's crisis intervention app giving families peace of mind amid mental health challenges.

Montrèal Cain wearing a MERA shirt.

(Courtesy photo)

For entrepreneur Montrèal Cain, the nation’s mental health crisis hits close to home.

He recalled the day a loved one struggling with mental illness turned up missing, and the feelings of panic as the family scrambled to secure mental health services and support so they could safely bring them back home.

Cain’s family isn’t alone. In Wisconsin, where he’s based, there are at least 859,000 adults who are living with a mental health condition, or roughly three times the population of Madison. Yet, more than 266,000 adults did not receive mental health care they needed. Across the state, more than 2.1 million people live in areas that do not have enough mental health professionals, including for crisis stabilization.

In the back of his mind, Cain worried that his loved one’s mental health crisis could lead to unnecessary escalation — a story all too familiar among families struggling to navigate mental health challenges in a broken system, especially among communities of color.

“I didn’t know where they were, I didn’t know how they were feeling, but I did know they were having a manic episode,” Cain told Technical.ly. “If you are living with a mental illness, there are so many different scenarios.” Those feelings are backed up in a 2019 report from the University of Wisconsin, which reviewed the state’s behavioral health system gaps: “When symptoms escalate in the absence of adequate services, the abiding concern is that the behavior of consumers of color is more likely to be deemed criminal.”

While Cain’s loved one eventually received care without incident, he couldn’t shake the notion that something worse could have happened. He wanted to find a better way to address mental health crises.

“There’s a phrase that says ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a cup of cure,’” Cain said. “I knew there had to be a more excellent way to just prevent these things.”

Tech as crisis intervention

In 2020, Cain founded HouseCall Wisconsin, a technology company focused on crisis prevention and intervention. The company has developed a mobile app called MERA, which allows individuals, caretakers and family members to monitor signs of behavioral health — and can quickly connect its users to mental health professionals in times of crisis.

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MERA stands for monitor, engage, recommend and advocate. The app, which uses assistive technology, integrates with smartwatches to monitor users’ heart rates and stress levels. If the app identifies high levels of stress, for example, the app will then engage with users via a “wellness check-in,” including a questionnaire to monitor how a user is feeling, as well as recommendations to practice mindfulness or seek professional help.

Behind the app is the MERA Response Team, a group of Wisconsin state-licensed and certified mental health counselors from AMRI Counseling Services who can deliver support as needed; the effort falls under HouseCall’s nonprofit arm. The MERA Response Team also provides ongoing support including evidence-based treatments like music therapy, cognitive therapy, counseling and peer support.

Cain said support can be deployed anywhere in Milwaukee County in about 30 minutes. All of MERA’s programming is designed to get ahead of mental health crises.

“Our objective is just to make sure that you know someone is there to support you and to make sure your loved ones have peace of mind,” the founder said.

Members of the MERA team. Montrèal Cain is fourth from the left. (Courtesy photo)

Tech as community service

According to the state’s health department, Wisconsin received more than 4,760 requests for crisis services in 2020 in Milwaukee alone. Many of these calls are routed through law enforcement or handled in emergency rooms.

Cain sees MERA as a valuable tool that could help  “lighten the load” for law enforcement. He is currently meeting with police departments and with the County’s crisis intervention task force for a potential partnership. While nothing is set in stone just yet, Cain said he’s received the backing of several community leaders and organizations, including Wisconsin Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services.

In the meantime, Cain is actively sharing data with the County and working on fleshing out a youth mental health initiative he’s called “Better Ways to Cope.” The pilot program will cover the costs for a smartphone, smartwatch, phone bill, the MERA app, and various modes of therapy to support youth mental health.

The program will also provide crisis management training to families of loved ones seeking mental health support. Cain is seeking $150,000 in a fundraising round slated to launch later this summer to support the pilot’s development.

In the future, Cain envisions making the MERA app available in every city — and even as a standard accessibility app on any smartphone. He imagines making mental health support as easy as swiping right.

So far, MERA has serviced over 100 families in the Milwaukee area, Cain said. As the startup looks to scale its technology and services, Cain said he is focused on finding strategic partnerships to expand MERA’s reach and improve mental health support for families just like his.

“The more I connect to people, I’m finding out that through our work, people are willing to have these conversations and open [their] phones,” Cain said. “It’s not a taboo anymore. And I believe we have the right energy, the right team, and the perfect timing that the market is ready to receive this innovation.”

Watch Technical.ly’s full conversation with Cain here:

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