The New York City-based nonprofit Project Healthy Minds is looking to leverage celebrity and business leader influence to make it easier for new patients to enter the behavioral health market.
Project Healthy Minds, founded in 2017, aims to tear down the three barriers that keep people with behavioral health conditions from seeking care. These are stigma, difficulty in finding care and the cost of care, Project Healthy Minds founder and CEO Phillip Schermer told BHB
Less than half, about 46.2%, of adults with a mental illness received care in 2020. Driving more people into care can help improve the health of populations and grow the marketplace for behavioral health.
To do so, Project Healthy Minds aims to systematize the impact that celebrities bring to mental health awareness.
It also seeks to nudge American big business to see the mental health of employees in the same light that many now see retirement planning and environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts.
In so doing, the organization is leaning into communications and marketing efforts as well as accumulating best business practices around mental health to create a fundamental shift in how Americans view behavioral health and empower more of them to seek it.
Schermer found the inspiration for the organization during a breakfast he had with friends in the music business in 2017.
These friends managed the hip-hop artist Logic. In April 2017, Logic released the single titled “1-800-273-8255.” That’s the former number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the hotline backed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and managed by Vibrant Emotional Health. The lifeline number is now 988.
The 8x Platinum single had a measurable impact on mental health help-seeking behavior.
On April 28, the day Logic released the single, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw the second largest single-day call volume in its history, only behind Aug. 12, 2014, the day after Robin Williams died by suicide.
The Federal Communications Commission pointed to these examples of how celebrity influence impacted the public awareness of the hotline in its official deliberations around the formation of the new 988 number.
The “1-800-273-8255” single helped millions of people, for a short while, get past stigma and handed them the information they needed to get help.
“You saw skyrocketing rates of help-seeking behavior,” Schermer said of the single. “I realized there was this interesting space that, if you could replicate the learnings of what was happening, you could create an organization around it.”
With no apparent shortage of celebrities willing to elevate mental health awareness the next step to systematize the influence of celebrities was to create an easy-to-find, easy-to-use place online to connect people with the information they need to get connected to help, Schermer said.
The Project Healthy Minds website acts as a kayak.com or OpenTable.com or other marketplace aggregation platform, Schermer said.
So far, Project Healthy Minds has favored connecting people with digital mental health companies and online resources. Schermer said this is meant to allow people greater speed to care and allow people to side-step any local access issues. Nationally, most markets face a mental health practitioner shortage.
“The scale of the problem and the urgency of where we are right now, I think, demands that kind of untraditional model,” Schermer said.
By effectively leveraging celebrity influence and promoting digital solutions, Schermer also hopes that enough people will begin to use digital mental health companies to improve their mental health and also transform the digital mental health market into one where companies can sustainably operate.
“One of the fundamental challenges for the direct-to-consumer mental health tech space is that the cost of acquiring a customer is too high for the lifetime value of the customer,” Schermer said. “And if we want there to be more innovation in this space, then the market has to mature in such a way that you can build profitable direct-to-consumer models.”
To help address the cost of care, Project Healthy Minds hopes to accelerate how large, publicly traded companies think about mental health benefits. A major portion of American workers — 41 million, according to one estimate — receive access to mental health through employer-backed health plans.
However, the unprecedented nature of COVID-19 and the resultant worsening of mental health means that there’s no playbook for employers to use when it comes to workers’ mental health. Project Healthy Minds is developing that playbook.
Schermer hopes that mental health benefits eventually see the same well-established and well-developed thinking around retirement benefits.
“Companies can choose on the spectrum of how generous they want to be for their workers on retirement planning, but there’s no question for a business on what the playbook is for how a company supports its employees on retirement planning,” Schermer said.
He added that he believes that mental health will follow the same path as ESG has over the past 10 years.
“The long-term project here is to demonstrate the materiality of companies that [invest in] their employee’s mental health … leads to better performance for your company over the long run,” Schermer said. “If you can show that, you can unlock at scale a lot of dollars in corporate America going to supporting employee mental health, but you have to be able to show the ROI.