Updated: Mar 19
We live in a world that arguably goes through an existential crisis. In this harsh reality, mental health is shifting as it takes up a more significant place in our lives.
Welcome to “A Healthusiasm World”, a newsletter by Christophe Jauquet on making customers healthy & happy.
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In this Transformational Economy, every business becomes a health business because everybody wants to be healthy & happy.
The past weeks
It has been over a month since my last blog post. That is twice as long as the time I devoted myself to. However, the reasons are not so wrong. Of course, minor cases of flu and colds at this time of the year have slowed down the speed of work. But there was also a lot of work for customers (few complaints there) and a slight expansion of the Healthusiasm Team (even fewer complaints here).
However, much of the slowdown also had to do with the "Mental Health" topic. To begin with, this is a subject that covers an enormously vast range. But besides that, so much has been written about it in the last two years. As a result, I found it a huge challenge to write a piece that actually added value to existing insights. This required enormous effort. But I hope these have paid off. Let us know what you think in advance.
The future of Mental Health
Mental health is complex. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It ebbs and flows along a spectrum that ranges from thriving to coping or from struggling to treating mental illness. Over time the perception and approach changed a lot. Before the 18th century, mental disorders were attributed to demonic possession or divine punishment. Those affected were tortured or sent to insane asylums.
Today, mental health is again undergoing a shift that is potentially almost as big as the change we’ve seen in the past 200 years. This change is driven by 4 macro trends:
Recent events, such as Covid, climate change and the recession, have caused the (probable) worst mental health crisis.
It has become apparent that the healthcare systems to address it are insufficient or even profoundly broken.
People are already more focused on well-being than welfare, compared to previous decennia.
Societies are under increasing financial pressure from rising costs, primarily caused by ageing and a less healthy population. There is a belief that mental health can play an impactful role in this threat.
In this blog post, I’ll try to sketch mental health's evolution (and it's future) by exploring five “phases” that I consider relevant in understanding and managing mental health today and tomorrow.
Table of Contents
1. Detri-mental health
“The accumulation of bad circumstances that are detrimental to our mental health”
In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the "global prevalence of anxiety and depression" increased by 25% in the first year of COVID-19. In fact, the WHO expects depression to be the single largest healthcare burden by 2030, with a global cost of $6 trillion. (For your info: this unimaginable amount compares to total global healthcare spending in 2012.)
Since the pandemic's start, there has been an increased focus on mental health issues and the importance of caring for our mental health. Obviously, the problems range way further than the loneliness and negative outlook that characterised that period. Technology has also played a massive part in our mental harm for many years.
Terms like glow faces, doomscrolling, smombies or pleasure trap apps describe the mental health impact of technology-related behaviours rather well. Meanwhile, filters and staged lifestyles create ideals that cause Snapchat dysmorphia, adonis complex and wellness syndromes. The rise of online social behaviours like toxic positivity, echo chambers, gaslighting and love bombing also take up a part of the blame. We feel the polarisation as we are bombarded with fear-based campaigns, ‘facts’ about health research, the great resignation and predictions about a life-altering recession. Climate change, zombie viruses, plastic beaches, and the announcement of soon-to-be-extinct animals create eco-anxiety.
One could say that we are almost on the verge of a full-blown existential crisis while entire demographics are massively opting out of organised religion. Our minds are full, our bodies are burned out, and we stopped believing. It’s omnipresent in (virtual and real) life and detrimental to our mental health.
2. Experi-mental health
“The increased focus on mental health created endless options and experimentations.”
A poll by the American Psychiatric Association showed that one-quarter of Americans made a new year’s resolution to improve their mental health in 2022. It’s fair to expect similar numbers in Europe because this is part of a bigger societal shift in which people are more aspirational than ever. But this time around, being the best possible version of yourself comes with healthy moderation (see: Aspiration Moderation Trend). It’s no longer just about improving but also about preventing, accepting and enjoying. Nevertheless, this aspirational lifestyle may well be the main reason for this increased focus on mental health.
People are more aspirational about doing and being better: we want to have a purpose in life, we want to show empathy, we want to belong, we want to grow, we try to accept difficult situations, we are looking for great experiences, we want to be authentic, we want to feel safe, …
But while our aspirations are perhaps more moderated than ever (see the previous blog post), it does take a toll on our mental health. Because every aspiration - how moderate they are - faces a reality about oneself or might shine a light on our own mental health. We aspire to be kind to ourselves because maybe we are too demanding; we aspire to look good to perhaps compensate for how we really feel; we aspire to feel safe because we are often insecure; we aspire for meaningful connections because we feel lonely. Every aspiration might come with or from a mental health issue. They are closely linked together. As a result, we are looking for ways to deal with our mental health, similar to how we are looking to meet our (moderate) aspirations today. So, I believe that the increased focus on mental health today also finds its origin in being more aspirational.
Therefore, we notice that people are ready to try different possible means: From traditional medicine to technology companies and from wellness techniques to psychedelics. They are looking for solutions that touch different parts of their lives differently. People act like lab rats going from one great solution to another to experiment and discover what works best for them. This behaviour is often driven by the sad truth that professional help within the existing system is not easily or sufficiently available to them.
Mental Health Economy
As more attention is given to this field, I expect to see new mental health treatment tools and strategies emerge. Global venture capital firm White Star Capital even dubbed this moment the “golden age of mental health tech”, with funding for mental health start-ups topping 1,6 billion dollars in 2020. But the global “mental health economy” encompasses more than these tech start-ups. It entails anything from alternative medicine to age-old therapies, from real estate to mood-boosting foods. From a business perspective, mental health has enormous potential. For example, a survey by American Express (2021) reported that 68% of world travellers will organise their next trip around improving their mental health. Hence, it is no surprise that the Global Wellness Institute estimates the global mental wellness economy to be worth no less than 121 billion dollars. Demand is higher than ever, and the range of solutions continues to grow exponentially. Telehealth, consumer brands and workplace programs are a significant catalysator of this evolution.
Late 2021 was marked by the remarkable merger of two mental health giants, Headspace and Ginger. Headspace is a global leader in mindfulness and meditation, and Ginger is a leader in on-demand mental healthcare, including video-based therapy and psychiatry support. Together they now provide the world’s largest, most accessible and comprehensive digital mental health and well-being platform. Meanwhile, different other platforms are meeting this growing need for remote mental health support as well: 7 cups connects people in need to 320.000 trained listeners via anonymous text or voice chats; COA, then again, wants to make mental health as common, accessible, and fun as physical fitness. It offers therapist-led, remote classes to make class-goers emotionally “fitter”.
Asics, a Japanese sports brand known for its slogan "Anima Sana In Corpore Sano" (healthy mind, healthy body), launched a new project in 2021 to promote mental well-being. The initiative links Asics' face-scanning Mind Uplifter Tool to the workout efforts of small English towns. This focus on promoting the physical and mental benefits of exercise builds on Asics' existing campaign that encourages people not to exercise to look their best but instead because it makes them happy. On World Mental Health Day 2022, Asics released an advertisement with almost identical images of models before and after their workouts. This departure from the typical 'before-and-after' photos used as celebratory images strengthens their vision. Another consumer brand, KitKat, encourages people to not just ‘Have a Break’ but to take their break one step further. In a partnership with Australian suicide prevention charity R U OK, they want people to really check in with each other. KitKat has a worldwide focus on helping people with their mental health: In the Netherlands, they’ve introduced ‘No Wi-Fi’ zones that block all wireless signals within a radius of 5 meters so that people would chat with each other while taking a break. In Colombia, the candy bar company instantly replied to Twitter posts that contained the word ‘stressed’. The reply showed the location of the nearest KitKat billboard with tiny, vibrating motors that massage people when leaning against it (and meet each other). While many of these consumer examples are only brand activation campaigns, it shows how every brand – regardless of whether it is a “healthy” brand or not - can help destigmatise mental health.
Finally, mental health has become more visible in the workplace during the pandemic, as workers are forced to cope with endless days on Zoom and work from home. The result? Zoom Fatigue and Inbox Infinity! This has caused many companies to adjust their policies to support mental health needs and prevent employee burnout and turnover. Numerous efforts are made around mental health, albeit rarely with consistency and strategy. But it’s a start. Some employers offer "mental health days," Zoom-free days, counselling services or other resources designed to promote good mental health practices among employees. At a certain point, Microsoft Teams introduced “virtual commutes” to create boundaries and structure that physical commutes once provided. Scheduling a “commute” for the beginning of a workday means setting aside time to prepare for work, whether going for a walk or planning tasks with a cup of coffee. End-of-the-day commutes can be customised with prompts to reflect emotionally, celebrate accomplishments, add jobs to a to-do list for later and meditate with Headspace (again them yes) to fully disconnect. Microsoft Teams also brought insights for managers and leaders into Teams. The aggregated view will help them know if teams and employees could be at risk of burnout from, for example, working long hours. Other initiatives, like the start-up Misü, can track your mood online. The workplace will (have to) be an essential catalysator for the future of mental health. (see this newsletter about a Marketplace for Digital Health as well)
The dangers of experiments
But there are apparent dangers related to this proliferation of solutions. In an open letter to the American Psychological Association (APA), therapists expressed concern about unethical business practices, questionable marketing claims, and low-quality services. Then again, therapists on different tech platforms complained about aggressive patients and poorly paid compensation. On the other side of the spectrum, many patients also have negative experiences. They often receive impersonal responses or are being "ghosted" by therapists altogether.
Meanwhile, more people are choosing to share their stories about mental health on social media. This includes notable figures like Olympic athletes, celebrities, and others who opened up about their struggles from 2021 onwards. They are using these platforms to talk openly about topics such as trauma, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, suicidal ideation and addiction. In many ways, this is a good thing. The more normalised it becomes to discuss mental health, the easier it will be for people to understand and identify mental health needs. This knowledge can help them seek necessary treatment when required.
But while this evolution helped break down the social stigma surrounding it, also this came with apparent dangers. First, many influencers and advocates speaking and advising on mental health have no (medical) background to inform others about more than just their own experience (which often happens nevertheless). Secondly, social media algorithms only prioritise “popular” mental health issues, causing many other problems to be ignored. A final danger lies in the fact that too many people today will self-diagnose a mental illness because of this “popularity”. However, there’s a difference between a depressive period and depression, being anxious and having anxiety. Mental health conditions are hardly ever a binary state of being. But if everyone claims to have mental health issues too easily, finding the ones in (real) need becomes more challenging. This evolution may even cause a new form of stigma: the unease of feeling okay or truly bad.
3. Funda-mental health
“The growing belief that mental health is fundamentally more than the sum of its parts”
The mental health crisis is worse than ever; the systems in place to address it are profoundly broken; and the new solutions are often still experimental. But as mental health is coming to the forefront of our lives, many are rightfully hopeful. A survey by Blackbox (2022) echoed this sentiment, with nearly 3 in 5 (58%) feeling optimistic about the growing discussions about mental health and well-being. And while solutions that tackle mental health issues are still growing out of their infancy, we must also acknowledge that they increase accessibility and affordability already today. Additionally, these solutions help to develop ecosystems that can serve as health communities and contribute to a much-needed holistic approach to mental health.
The destigmatisation of mental health creates a psychological safety to bring up the topic in family conversations, neighbourhoods, schools, sports clubs and sometimes even at work (although most companies are not quite there yet, I’m afraid). What better place to talk about mental health than where you feel best? Such communities become safe environments where people dare to open up. Moreover, these mental health communities slowly start functioning as proper ecosystems with a growing set of solutions for people. These communities turn into a fundament of the future of mental health.
In 2018, Lidl Ireland launched "The Bakery" to gather and discuss mental health topics while indulging in delicious baked goods. The space was created to provide events focusing on increasing mental illness awareness. More recently, Marks & Spencer launched 'Frazzled Cafes' with a similar mission centred on mental health, community and supporting well-being. In 2022, Gymshark introduced a new barbershop called Deload to allow men to comfortably open up to barbers with some education in mental health care. All hairdressers are trained in mental health, courtesy of Calm. The popular meditation app now also provides Workshops to strengthen and normalise mental health conversations within communities. Pinterest is launching an initiative called “Havens: Invest in Rest,” a physical installation in Chicago. The facility features pins of relaxing imagery, immersive art, and community programming to help combat burnout and encourage viewers to come together to focus on their emotional well-being. Pinside Out—the platform's internal mental health community—will curate the online collection of calming images, prompts for journaling, and bedtime affirmations. In New York City, the Rubin museum opened The Mandala Lab. It’s a cultural healing space designed to encourage emotional wellness and inspire connections within its own community.
While speciality care will be necessary in some cases, mental health care will often be delivered in local health communities or retail settings. These communities will serve as centres for education, prevention, and perhaps even some form of treatment. Additionally, we can expect some of these health communities to function as bridges to other communities as they will connect people to virtual, home, and extra care and wellness providers.
Holistic mental health care
Another consequence of the current experi-mental evolution is the need for a more holistic approach as the fundament of mental health. Mental health isn’t just all about your mind. And while we previously touched upon the importance of health communities, mental health is also more than relationships and the world around you. In fact, mental health is closely related to one’s physical health as well.
Today, we want to understand how everything is connected. This holistic approach recognises the intertwinement of mental and physical health. It will evolve into a better understanding of what primary mental care should be about (social, physical, mental). It will turn the focus away from linear diagnoses involving pills and procedures. Instead, the focus will be on better overall health.
This significant shift could profoundly impact how we care for our (mental) health. The person, not their diagnosis, symptoms or behaviours, is at the centre of health management. And the way we manage our health will be a combination of Western medicine, advanced technologies and some of the world’s greatest healing traditions (like meditation and acupuncture). Previous experi-mental efforts will come together to form a funda-mental approach that will grow beyond its current parts.
4. Instru-mental health
“Growing scientific & technologic advancement will be instrumental in mental health care.”
Innovations in the assessment and treatment of mental health problems are being shaped by progress in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, and advanced technologies. The holistic approach will expand incrementally in the coming years. Here are three instrumental changes that will impact the future of mental health.
Blood Biomarkers and Genomics
Blood tests for mental illnesses are one such advancement. It is still in an early stage of development but holds the promise to be instrumental in diagnosing mental health conditions. Mental illnesses are complex and have biological, psychological and sociocultural etiologies. But this method could complement traditional diagnostic tools, which are often still trial and error today. Blood tests done after a diagnosis to find the root causes of, for example, mental illnesses like depression, could in the future be done upfront. Because yes, research continues to show how the brain and the body are inextricably connected.
These studies are often not “large” enough to make firm conclusions. However, the widespread availability of genetic data could help. It would allow us to investigate the correlation between many small DNA sequence changes (“variants”) and mental illness. These variants can then be correlated with blood biomarkers measured in routine blood tests, such as cholesterol, vitamins, enzymes, and indicators of inflammation. (Correlation does not yet mean causality, but it’s a start.)
Genomics promises to be instrumental in mental health in the coming year. It’s been 20 years since the first human genome was sequenced but only 10 years since the birth of psychiatric genomics. This field of expertise aims to find genes that reveal the biology behind mental health disorders. Predicting a mental health disorder from a person’s genome may not be possible yet, but we are making progress.
Meanwhile, mental health genomic testing company Genomind has already marketed a pharmacogenomic test called Genecept Assay. Since 2016, the test has aimed at guiding treatments for depression and Alzheimers based on genetic profiling. The company even believes that science can now assess a person's predisposition to mental health. The company launched its Mental Health Map ($599), which empowers people to understand how their genetic profile might influence behaviour, mood and stress response. This information lets people take action to optimise their mental well-being.
While such commercial tests are indicative and (perhaps) purely motivational, scientific research is (only) in the early stage of discovering the first ‘proven’ diagnostic test for a mental health disorder. More is yet to come. But it will be instrumental.
Nutritional Psychiatry is a relatively new field as well. It studies the role of nutrition in mental health care: What fuel does your brain need to take 24/7 care of your thoughts and movements, breathing and heartbeat, and senses. Researchers in this field study the connections between gut bacteria and their effect on the brain. For example, studies have shown that patients with depression had lower levels of specific gut bacteria and that the abundance of several other gut bacteria may correlate with the severity of schizophrenia symptoms. There is still limited research in this area. Still, the SMILES trial (2017) examined the role of diet in treating moderate to severe depression and saw diets causing significant improvements in depression symptoms, including 32% achieving remission. Because of the relationship between the gut and brain, a person’s food will affect their mood, cognition, and mental health. Paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel will be instrumental in the future of mental health (as well as when we eat those foods).
Most people still prefer personal care today. But many patients argue that the quality of mental therapy can vary due to many things: quality might depend on the day of the week of the appointment, the weather outside or other recent events. Therefore, the metaverse model of care, which could make abstract of such dependencies, has the potential to revolutionise the way mental health therapy is delivered. That’s why numerous companies are already developing innovative business models in the Metaverse to solve these current challenges. It could be a place where people can come together and connect in personalised ways that are impossible in the physical world. The Metaverse could be a safe, virtual world that provides care specifically tailored to how each person experiences mental illness. Therefore, the Metaverse can push a new frontier in mental health because of its impact on different levels.
First, such digital spaces create a sense of connection during periods of loneliness, disconnection and social rejection. Research has shown that a Metaverse is a powerful tool in psychology due to its ability to connect people to a (virtual) space. Researchers found in 2022 that people who socialised in virtual worlds - as opposed to 2D online platforms - felt transported to that physical space. This increases their sense of connection with other people as well as it feeds their own self-fulfilment.
In addition, the Metaverse makes therapy sessions more accessible. The ability to create a custom avatar gives users a chance to create an identity they feel comfortable with. This can be beneficial for people who suffer from social anxiety or other mental health conditions that make it difficult for them to talk to others in the real world about their problems. Patients and their mentors can also meet there while maintaining anonymity. The use of virtual spaces can therefore increase the likelihood of help-seeking behaviour and conversations. The Metaverse thus becomes a safe place to face their fears. In that way, such platforms will actually offer equal opportunities to people.
Finally, a recent study also found that participants who experienced simulations (or hallucinations) generated greater cognitive flexibility or adaptability afterwards. This field is, of course, still in its infancy, but it can also impact the future of mental health. Such simulated experiences can be a valuable alternative to the increasingly popular psychedelic drugs that can often still have quite a few side effects and dangers related to them.
Slowly but surely, the Metaverse will become instrumental in our lives, and mental health may be one of the best use cases in due course. The Mental verse has the potential to provide easy access to personalised experiences by removing barriers and creating impactful virtu-real connections.
5. Ele-mental health
“mental health being elemental to our overall (public) health.”
While we are establishing the fundamental and instrumental parts of our mental health, mental health in itself will, in turn, become more elemental to our overall health. There is an increasing and widely accepted belief that mental health is inextricably tied to broader health outcomes.
Poor psychological health can disrupt your ability to think clearly and make healthy decisions. But neglecting your mental health could also lead to serious health problems such as obesity, gastrointestinal issues and a weakened immune system. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), depression and anxiety are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and increased blood pressure. Depression is also considered to be one of the leading causes of disability, and people with severe mental health conditions die prematurely.
Most studies of psychological health are observational and based on self-reporting from patients. This presents challenges to proof a cause-and-effect relationship. However, the large number of such studies makes it highly indicative and allows reasonable conclusions to be drawn about an association between negative psychological health and overall health risk. But the economic cost on society from, for example, obesity and cardiovascular diseases, is so high that these studies should be enough to prioritise the impact of mental health on our overall health. After all, cardiometabolic disease and obesity risk damaging our society severely in the future. Therefore, one of the most critical public health challenges is making “mental health as elemental to our health”. In this way, mental health will soon claim an even more important place in everyone’s health management. This will, in turn, accelerate the growth of the above fundamental and instrumental aspects of mental health.
The Healthusiasm Take
We live in a world that arguably goes through an existential crisis. Recession, health scares and climate change are detri-mental to our mental health. Amid this harsh reality, we aspire to change things, starting with ourselves. We are looking for health solutions that help us face the challenges in different parts of our lives. Today, many of these solutions may still be in an experi-mental phase, looking for ways to mature as part of a broader context. But soon, we will see how these solutions will be combined in broader ecosystems based on a more holistic view of mental health and supported within health communities. This is the funda-mental change in mental healthcare that we can expect in the short term. In the longer term, we will see how genomics, nutritional psychiatry and the Metaverse will also become instru-mental to our mental health. Meanwhile, I don’t foresee less focus on mental health any time soon. Quite the opposite, in fact. As we start to build a scientific proof of how mental health impacts overall health outcomes, mental health will even become a more ele-mental part of our health management.
Mental health touches every aspect of our lives, and not a single business can ignore this evolution, whether operating in a consumer or healthcare business. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to reflect upon the role you can play in this changing world. You can be experimental, fundamental, instrumental or elemental in the mental health support of your customers and patients. I’d say that the least you can do is to avoid being detrimental, of course.
Too many aspects of any business today still negatively impact one’s mental health. There’s still a lot to be done there. Take inspiration from smartphones with screentime-management and notification-less features; Pinterest banned all weight loss product advertisements to prioritise mental health (over ad revenue), or how KLM Airlines is asking customers whether a suggested train route might be a better alternative to the requested flight. Every business has a role to play in building for a better world. Every business should focus on customer transformations. Because yes,… in today’s reality, it’s ele-mental to make customers healthy & happy.
That's it for now.
Take care, everybody.
Keynote speaker on the future of business in this health-conscious world.
· Nutritional psychiatry - Your brain on food: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
· The Therapy-App Fantasy: An overwhelming demand for counselling has spawned slickly marketed companies promising a service they cannot possibly provide. https://www.thecut.com/article/mental-health-therapy-apps.html
World Economic Forum- 4 ways to keep the momentum rolling on mental healthhttps://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/4-ways-to-keep-mental-health-momentum-rolling