At this anxious time, most of us are isolated at home and traditional support services are shuttered. For thousands of young people in the UK, the online mental health app Kooth provides a welcome lifeline, and the service is expanding to meet current demand. XenZone, the company that operates Kooth along with another app for adults, just launched a recruitment drive to grow its network of online counselors. It's also working to extend its reach into more communities around the country and into businesses too.
In my last face-to-face interview before Britain went into lockdown last month, I caught up with XenZone's CEO Tim Barker and recorded a podcast on these and other issues — see link below. The current lockdown is making us all aware of the mental wellbeing of ourselves and others. Its impact may last well beyond the current time, according to a BBC report today:
The coronavirus pandemic could have a 'profound' effect on people's mental health — now and in the future, say psychiatrists and psychologists who are calling for urgent research.
The free, anonymous Kooth service is currently available to 5 million mostly 11-25 year-olds in the UK. On Monday this week, that number went up by another quarter-million when the service was switched on across Birmingham, the country's second-largest city, after an accelerated roll-out.
XenZone got started 15 years ago and is now firmly established as the UK's largest digital mental health provider, working with NHS (National Health Service) commissioning groups across the country. It provides a mix of community-created content, forum sessions with other community members, and one-to-one counselling via online chat. All users sign up anonymously for the free-of-charge service and there's no digital tracking of session IP addresses. The aim is to provide a safe space where each person can get the support they need, says Barker:
They can choose the therapeutic support they want to get, based on what they need. We make sure we've got a robust clinical oversight and governance of this, so that if we need some intervention, if there's a safeguarding issue, that we can also engage with individuals there to help them ...
The fundamental, foundational thing for our service is safety. That there is a safe place where you are going to be supported, with a supportive community, and also supportive counselling through our practitioners.
Supporting mental health in the workplace
Now XenZone is starting to take its service into the workplace — and the move couldn't have been better timed. Many employers are giving far more thought than ever before to emotional support and mental wellbeing. It's a trend that was already there before COVID-19 came on the scene, says Barker:
There's a much higher expectation that organizations are there for your entire wellbeing, as opposed to nine to five ...
The ROI for the organization is pretty clear, in three areas. Clearly there's an employee engagement piece — engaged employees perform better at work. There's an employee retention piece as well. And there's also an attainment piece, the fact that a good chunk of time spent off sick is through mental health. So if we can help improve your employees' well being, we can help improve the business performance.
Barker tells me there's been particular interest from organizations wanting to support firstline workers who engage directly with the public, either in person or from call centers. The need is even greater now that companies are operating remotely as much as possible:
If you have to look at field-based employees or remote workers, you've now got this additional challenge of how are you going to create and support your employees in a well-being and mental health context? Digital-first is clearly the way to do that.
It's important not to lose the human touch, though, and having active moderation and the ability to access one-to-one counselling is an important part of the Kooth experience. But going online can help bridge the gaps where in-person services are no longer available, says Barker:
If we move to social distancing, it may be an area where digital can also help bridge and provide support for existing programs as well as overflow for those that are that are looking for any support.
We're in an incredibly anxiety creating time. None of us have been through anything quite like this before ... As a remote-first company ourselves, and as a health tech company, we're seeing increased demand on us and an ability perhaps then to put a digital first approach to support this growing demand.
Using data science to augment the human touch
Later in our conversation, we touched on the potential to use data science to guide users and counselors in the future — a big part of Barker's motivation to take up his role at XenZone. Barker alludes to the concept of coaching networks, in which machine learning augments human creativity and emotional intelligence by analyzing what behavior produces better results. He's keen to apply this model to XenZone's store of data:
We've got a huge corpus of data, the largest mental health dataset on the planet, given the history that we've been working in this on. All of it has got clinical governance over it because of the moderation that we do on everything. So we've got a labeled data set, which as a machine learning engineer will tell you is the dream of everyone.
What we're really trying to look at is how we can use that to augment, not automate, the experience that we've got. That might be as simple as signposting to individuals to say, 'Here's three or four things that have helped people like you given what your needs are.' It might also help identify potential risk early on, so that we can flag safeguarding issues ...
There is a huge value in a human-led service and experience. And if tech and AI can help augment, just in that coaching network, to help our counselors and practitioners provide a better experience to our service users, that's a phenomenal advantage that we can use our data for.
I've known Barker since the early days of Salesforce, where he worked for some time before becoming CEO of social media data science startup DataSift. He takes up the reins at XenZone at a perfect time to drive a new phase in the company's growth, and his data science experience will prove very useful in exploring whether there are patterns in its historic dataset that can be helpful to future users.
At a time when businesses are becoming more conscious of the need to foster well-being in their employees and in the wider world, XenZone's services can make an important contribution. Barker says, "I couldn't think of a better problem to spend my next decade on." Amen to that.