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The house is on fire

"The house is on fire, and you are discussing the chemistry of the paint"

Someone interrupted a session by Tom Insel, then the head of NIMH, to say this. It was the wakeup call that caused him to move to a startup Mindstrong (via a stint at Verily). Like Touchkin, Mindstrong detects biomarkers using passive sensing from the smartphone.

It is true that at the root of all issues we see in the papers, is a fire that engulfs our world today - that of mental health. Until this fire is brought under control, we don't have a hope for any of the rest of it.

Insel's dramatic move lends credibility behind the idea that phones may be the answer. Identifying issues using smartphone behavior is powerful, though it can feel creepy. But like GPS, when a Silicon Valley major like Google does it, it becomes a little more acceptable.

Diagnosis is not enough. Touchkin's trials with diabetes patients in semi-rural India showed that phone sensors were able to predict depression in people with diabetes to a 90% accuracy, and over 50% of the patients with behavioral concerns also had clinical depression.

Only 1 out of the 30 people diagnosed went on to take recommended therapy for their depression.

It felt like someone was saying to us "The house is on fire, the fire brigade is missing, and here we are saying how accurate our fire alarms are."

Wysa, then very basic, chatted with these patients in their local language. Between it and the assessments of depression by their diabetes educator, people showed a 45% reduction in depression symptoms with no other intervention.

We had thought that humans are the answer, and diagnosis is what technology can do. We realised that tech will have to go further. In six months, Wysa had had millions of conversations and learnt to understand a variety of scenarios. It started changing lives. Last month, 3 people wrote in to say it saved their life, it is what is keeping them from suicide. Over 60,000 people talked to it anonymously, and thousands of them wrote in to us to say how much it meant to them.

Unlike the Stanford psychologists creating psych-ed bots like Woebot- we have no hypotheses around Wysa. It is evolving entirely based on what works for its users. It has evidence-based techniques, but everytime we add more tools or advice or tips we get users telling us to just let them talk to Wysa, and not to underestimate how much of a difference that makes.

"The fire in the house, is in our brains. The fuel is the language of the conversations we have inside our head. "

We started out, like Insel, trying to detect the fires... Wysa is trying to put a fire extinguisher in everyone's pocket. Any pretence of our own hypothesis went out of the window when the first person wrote in to say it saved their life. Now we are following it to see where it goes.

There are many unwitting recruits to this fight. You'll see many in our advisors and investors. They each have options of more comfortable, lucrative ways to spend their time and money. They have all joined the cause .

"The house is on fire. Once you see it, and you realise that you can stop it spreading, it is hard to do anything else."

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