Depression is a costly issue. With 16 million people impacted by it in the U.S. alone, depression costs American businesses (including entrepreneurs) approximately $44 billion per year.

And there is simply no dollar amount one can put on the human suffering associated with it--both for the individual with depression and the loved ones who surround them. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are two very public, high-profile examples of those who fought and lost to the insidious and heartbreaking mental illness.

Serial healthcare entrepreneur and Founder and CEO of Meru Health, Kristian Ranta, is no stranger to depression. After losing his brother to suicide (prompted by depression), and contending with several more friends suffering from the debilitating disease, he decided to act.

Meru Health was born out of a desire to empower people to heal themselves, and to use technology to power that process.

When it comes to treating mental health issues, digital alternatives, online therapy, and virtual treatment modalities are becoming increasingly popular. This is a boon, given that access to treatment has been -- and continues to be -- a massive challenge. In the United States, most cases of depression are initially treated by primary care physicians, which doesn't always translate to good outcomes.

Meru Health is an online medical clinic created specifically to improve the lives of people living with depression. It offers smartphone access to therapeutic interventions to treat both depression as well as burnout and anxiety (which are often present in people with depression). There are three advantages to such a model:

1. It's contained to start with

Depression can be overwhelming. Someone looking to get better may not even know what s/he faces, and it can feel like too much to even "figure it out." Questions facing a depressed person might include,  "Why do I feel like this all the time?" "Is this my fault?" "Why can't I just get over it?" "What options are out there?" "What if I don't want to take drugs? (What else can I do?)"

Meru Health offers a contained, 8-week mobile program to help people get started on recovery--including personal support from a remote licensed therapist. The eight weekly modules unfold in order, and include evidence-based elements that have been proven to help with depression. These include mindfulness (meditation, breathing practices, etc.), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and behavior changes that can significantly elevate mood.

The program is individualized according to your personal needs and goals, and since people can work through problems at their own pace, and check in with a peer network any time they feel stressed, it makes it an inviting and normalizing way to start to get better.

2. It's accessible

One of the most cunning components of depression is an overwhelming sense of apathy or malaise -- one lacks the motivation to do anything at all. Some people with depression will spend an entire day in bed, or an entire weekend, or more. So when it comes to treating depression successfully, access must be easy.

Meru Health, because it's entirely online, requires nothing more than a smartphone. You don't have to get dressed, or contend with traffic or public transportation, or face anyone you don't want to, or deal with facing people in a waiting room, or anything else out there in the real world. You can just sign on and get help -- even from bed.

Plus, Meru Health was designed to be low-cost, within reach. The program's approximate average cost is $700 (it's ~$2,200 for a comparable traditional program). Meru Health also has no flat, up-front costs, and is results and satisfaction basis. Users only continue with the program based on satisfaction, and are billed accordingly. Part of what the startup is trying to address is changing the industry into one that's more transparent, results-based, and has on-demand pricing.

3. It emphasizes social interaction

One of the most successful treatments for mild to moderate depression is social support. Depressed people often feel deeply, profoundly alone, and sometimes those close to them simply don't know what to say (or make it worse by saying the wrong thing).

The fact is, for many people, professional mental health care may be out of reach, prohibitively expensive, or simply too time-consuming. And a lot of depressed people aren't surrounded by loved ones who "get it." Instead, they can feel judged or isolated.

In addition to professional support (by a licensed therapist), Meru Health offers an anonymous, online peer support program, which can be a game changer in and of itself. Besides just being around others "like you" and receiving support from them, there is also an opportunity to give support to someone else. And giving support to others struggling with the same things you are can be a deeply healing act, and one that leads to increased self-esteem, solidarity, and even the beginnings of joy.

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The truly exciting part of all this isn't the uplifting idea that people with depression who are using a specific program are getting better (though that is inspiring in and of itself)--it's that this is the future of medicine.

The team behind Meru Health is a small group of engineers, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. They're all working together, as one, to help get what works out there to those who need it. And it's working: 75 percent of patients who undergo the program report clinically meaningful reduction in symptoms.

Encouragingly, the group is currently working with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California and the National Student Health System in Finland, along with several U.S. universities, to conduct clinical research on the impact of such digital therapeutic solutions. They're also collaborating with a number of companies who want to help their employees tackle depression. The more of this kind of thing we can get out there, quickly, the better.

The truth is, we live in an increasingly interconnected world, yet loneliness runs rampant. If we can harness technological solutions like these to help people feel less isolated, more connected, and more grounded, we will, one person at a time, build the kind of world in which we want to live: one full of connection, growth, belonging, and love.

Published on: Jun 12, 2018