The rise of mental health startups in India

Nelson Vinod Moses November 23, 2016 4 min

India has fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists and only 900 or so trained clinical psychologists for a population of 1.2 billion, as we noted here. Startups that provide counselling and therapy remotely are trying to bridge this gap.

Richa Sharma, an IIT-Guwahati alumnus, started YourDost as a blog to talk about mental health after a hostel-mate of hers, fearing she wouldn’t get a good placement, committed suicide. Richa found that a lot of people didn’t talk about what they were going through because of the stigma of seeking psychiatric help.

“While there was a lot of pressure, they don’t seek support. Stress levels are rising along with rising aspirations and expectations, the work environment is very competitive and there is very little family support. Culturally we don’t seek support and even if we do, counsellors are not available everywhere and on demand. What if I need a counselor at night? We (at YourDost) wanted to solve this by letting our users be anonymous and being available 24/7 on both web and mobile,” says Sharma.

YourDost wants to become the RedBus of the counselling world by organising an industry it feels is currently disorganised

YourDost wants to become the RedBus of the counselling world by organising an industry it feels is currently disorganised. It has 500-plus counsellors, psychologists and career coaches on the platform who mostly deal with issues related to exams, relationships and work. The sessions are mostly through web-chat and Skype. Richa says 5 lakh have people accessed the site in the past 1.5 years.

Dr Shyam Bhat, who made the headlines as actress Deepika Padukone’s therapist, has been practising for two decades, and been offering online psychiatric services since 2010. He launched Seraniti a few months ago.

Online counselling is as effective as face-to-face counselling, says Dr Shyam Bhat

“Online counselling is just as effective as face to face,” says Dr Bhat. Seraniti mostly treats clients for depression, anxiety, phobias and relationship issues. For severe conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar that need urgent attention, Dr Bhat and his colleagues recommend clients to the nearest psychiatrist.

Yale-educated Sunita Maheshwari, a paediatric cardiologist, set up a teleradiology company offering telemedicine solutions a few years ago. Soon she had signed up 150 hospitals around the world. Maheshwari expanded into clinics, and set up four clinics in Bangalore with doctors and mental health counsellors. Noticing that the counsellors had a lot of down-time, she decided on putting her telemedicine experience to use and started HealthEminds in 2013, with a mix of video and voice-based counselling.

When they first started, they had a mix of free and paid services, but have gone fully paid since, and charge Rs 500 for a one-hour session. Other than English, HealthEminds offers services in a variety of Indian languages including Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and English. Healtheminds has 70 psychologists and counsellors on board and focuses its efforts on counselling because Maheshwari feels that “psychiatry” gets trickier, since it deals with more severe mental disorders and there’s also the need to dispense medicines.

Other than English, HealthEminds offers services in a variety of Indian languages including Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and English

Serial entrepreneurs Meena and K Ganesh know a good opportunity when they see one. From their entrepreneurial stable, GrowthStory, a startup factory, has emerged Grow Fit, a startup that offers personalised treatment plans, ongoing support and products that help address lifestyle diseases, which includes counselling and coaching for mental health and wellness.

Given that there is a lack of trained mental health personnel in smaller towns and cities, startups like Grow Fit report that 80 percent of their clients are from Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4 locations. “Tier 2-plus towns are where youth are struggling with the pressures of modern life without any source of support. They are advised to turn to religion or family for support but the sad truth is that existing institutions don’t provide a framework, much less support for the ongoing pain of bullying, abuse, stress or heartbreak. Many of the cities are so small that we have to hunt for them on a map. Yet we see global issues such as drug-addiction, sexual abuse or gender identity emerge from these locations. Rather than judging and shunning such concerns, it’s important to have a compassionate and comprehensive framework for treatment, which Grow Fit provides,” says Jo Pattabiraman, co-founder, Grow Fit.

“Tier 2, 3 towns are where youth are struggling with the pressures of modern life without any source of support,” says Jo Pattabiraman of Grow Fit

There has been interest in the mental health and wellness industry by a clutch of angel investors and the VC industry. In March, this year, cricketer Robin Uthappa invested an undisclosed amount, through his investment fund Caffeine Ventures, in HealthEminds. The company will use the funds to expand its operations.

After mopping up $400,000 (around Rs 2.6 crore) in seed funding from a clutch of angel investors like Phanindra Sama, co-founder, redBus; Aprameya Radhakrishnan, co-founder, TaxiForSure; Paula Ravindra Mariwala, executive director, Seedfund; and Gaurav Bhalotia, vice president of engineering, Flipkart; YourDost raised a Series A round of $1.28 million led by SAIF Partners.

Also read:

India has 3,800 psychiatrists for 1.2bn people. Can tech step in to manage mental health?


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