Online services bring affordable therapy to India’s tech workers
LONG-STANDING mental health problems without obvious solutions in India’s tight-lipped, conservative society are getting a high-tech solution with various online chatbots supplying an unmet niche market for counselling.
According to a report by Bloomberg, the recent turmoil in the South Asian country’s US$154 billion technology outsourcing industry has sparked a growing demands for online therapy services, provided by companies such as Wysa, YourDOST (“dost” means friend in Hindi), and Juno Clinic.
“Online mental health platforms are powerful, and real-time counseling can segue into a solution,” says Mridul Arora, a managing director at SAIF Partners, to Bloomberg. “Any new service needs early adopters and who better than young, tech-savvy IT professionals?”
SAIF Partners is a backer of the therapy chatbot startup YourDOST, the brainchild of founders Puneet Manuja and Richa Singh. The founders befriended one another at a global technology firm and bonded over their negative career-related experiences.
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YourDOST began as a blog, but the friends began experimenting with more interactive features for users looking for face-to-face counseling, and eventually, the platform shifted to accommodate offerings from actual psychologists and psychiatrists.
The platform, and its counterparts, are filling a niche demand for affordable, 24/7 services in an industry that could otherwise cost consumers hundreds of dollars per session. A YourDOST audio chat could set a user back merely INR400 (US$6.20), while a video chat costs INR600 (US$9.30) per session. YourDOST is currently servicing as many as 2,000 counseling sessions per day.
Another platform, Wysa, is attempting to explore the uses of natural language processing — a subsection of artificial intelligence technology that deals with the interactions between computer and human languages, and the former’s ability to process the latter — in relation with solutions from professional therapists.
“The chatbot provides an empathic ear, listens without judgment and guides them to the positive,” Wysa co-founder Jo Aggarwal said to Bloomberg. “The conversations feel natural and real.”
The startup’s use of artificial intelligence sets it apart from its counterparts, as it reveals its ethos is shying away from prescriptive, quick-fix solutions that might ignore the individual needs of every patient. The startup’s services are also free – Wysa makes money by licensing its AI technology to businesses, such as enterprises and healthcare providers.
Where both Wysa and YourDOST are responding to a wider need for therapy, Juno Clinic is also providing for a specific client: the fired employee.
India’s roiling technology scene has seen lay-offs and emotional upheaval for many workers over the last year. Rising use of automation to cut costs, growing reliance on “gig economy” forms of employment, and protectionist policies in the US cutting into available work visas is threatening the country’s technology industry. According to McKinsey and Co., the corporate services consultancy, there are expectations that almost 50 percent of India’s four million tech workers will become “irrelevant” in the next few years.
The uncertainty has, understandably, created huge concerns for many employees, manifesting itself in mental strain which is further exacerbated by a lack of channels for open conversation. The platforms offered by Juno Clinic, Wysa and YourDOST are helping to ease the anguish of Indian tech workers through anonymous, convenient and affordable channels, without forgetting the need for a human touch.
“Intervention is very important, or work-related anxiety and depression could quickly spiral into something worse,” says Juno Clinic co-founder Davesh Manocha to Bloomberg.
Juno Clinic set up a special package for fired employees which relied on 28 therapists who will deal with such specific callers. The founders of Juno spent a significant portion of their time in the outsourcing industry, and their experiences have informed the direction of their startup’s services.
A research project by Wysa found that job loss and work-related issues were becoming more prevalent in their counseling sessions. These online services are responding to a time of political and economic upheaval in what was once seen as a major growth driver in India’s emerging economy. Their emergence could signal a template for how technology could help make services more accessible, while artificial intelligence is easing fears of inhumane interactions.