An accessible, affordable way to seek help for mental health issues

01 Nov 2021

Straits Times, 1 Nov 2021, An accessible, affordable way to seek help for mental health issues
After going through a bad break-up and a sudden school transfer, Mr Raphael Yee thought of ending his life.

He was only 18 at the time.

"Everything just hit me at once and I didn't know how to deal with it," the first-year Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) student told The Straits Times.

After a friend shared her experience getting therapy, he sought professional help through online counselling and at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where he was diagnosed with depression.

Mr Yee said: "(What she said) made me realise that if someone else could feel that (seeing a therapist) had value, maybe I could feel that way?"

Now, the 24-year-old wants to help cash-strapped young people like himself take "a half-step towards getting therapy". To that end, he created mental health app Steady with fellow computer science and design students Bryce Goh and Lee Wai Shun. Users can chat with counsellors trained to deal with their issues via the app.

The high cost of therapy and long wait times at IMH are a major deterrent to getting professional help, noted Mr Yee, adding that Steady aims to help young adults who require an affordable and convenient alternative.

He said: "You would think that because therapy is online, it would be much cheaper than in-person, but it can cost around $100 to $200 an hour. That's not something a Gen Z student or a fresh graduate can afford every week."

IMH visits can also take up to three hours when you factor in travelling and waiting time, he added.

The app was launched in July and subscriptions start from $67 per month for students and full-time national servicemen.

"Most of my life is spent on my phone so the first point of contact is usually through a digital method for Gen Zs (like myself)," said Mr Yee.

"Instead of going to Instagram or Facebook where you could potentially view things that make you feel worse, we hope people can turn to an app like Steady to speak with a therapist."

The idea came to him as he was studying for his examinations this year. To ease the pressure, Mr Yee tried several tele-therapy services based in the United States, but the counsellors did not seem to empathise with his problems.

"I found that they were not very helpful because many international therapists might not totally understand the Asian perspective on schoolwork," he said.

Frustrated by the lack of options, Mr Yee and his friends decided to create a therapy app.

From May to August, they spoke to therapists and SUTD students to find out how they could make an app that young people could use for mental health support. They then built the app from scratch while looking for therapists who had worked or were working in a counselling-related position.

For users who are uncertain about paying to speak to a counsellor, the app has a listener service where people can share their problems for free with volunteers.

Said Mr Yee: "Back in 2017, asking me to see a therapist and pay $200 per hour was very daunting."

Rather than be a substitute for in-person counselling, the app could be a first step to seeking mental health support, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, he added.

Mr Goh, 25, who handles the app's technical aspects, told ST: "I hope for the app to be the go-to therapy app for Gen Zs and young adults. We are trying to make mental healthcare just as accessible and normal as visiting a general practitioner for a cold."

Following World Mental Health Day on Oct 10, the team has seen over 300 new sign-ups on the app, which now has more than 450 users. As at yesterday, over 26,000 messages have been exchanged on the app.