This psychologist-entrepreneur is on a mission to ensure mental healthcare is accessible to all
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bengaluru-based mental health startup has formed a network of 27 volunteer-psychologists and helped more than 600 individuals deal with trauma and anxiety.
Nithya J Rao’s concern that there are very few psychologists in India led her to start Heart It Out, a startup focused on mental health, in 2017.
Unfortunately, her concern is too real and grave to neglect – India needs at least 13,000 more psychiatrists to achieve an ideal psychologist to population ratio of 1: 8,000 to 10,000, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Ironically, there are more Indian psychiatrists in the UK and US than there are in India. “As someone who really understands and loves India for what it is, I wanted to create a space where people can come, express themselves, and be safe,” Nithya says.
Nithya who holds master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology from the Richmond Fellowship Society was previously associated with a venture capitalist firm, RoundGlass. There, she worked on designing a fellowship for social entrepreneurs in health and tech sectors and went on to build mental health support chatbots for several universities in Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, and Gujarat.
Addressing mental health in India
As a professional working in the mental health space for three years now, Nithya explains there is a vast difference between academic learning in psychology and practice.
“We need to address so many things including the cultural realities of people in different geographies. A lot of psychological studies are conducted in Western countries, textbooks are written by foreigners and to translate their work into the cultural reality of India takes a lot of effort.”
Nithya believes that the reality is vastly different from an illness described in the textbook. Social realities such as poverty and casteism can affect our mental health, she adds.
At the same time, while institutes like NIMHANS are conducting relevant studies, the country suffers from a lack of practitioners to implement them.
Stigma and social taboo still prevent people from seeking help for mental wellbeing. Taking help is the last resort for most Indians who would rather pray than approach a psychiatrist or psychologist for help.
Nithya and her co-founder Taha Zaidi even had a hard time finding premises to house Heart It Out, because the stigma was still ingrained in many people.
Based in Bengaluru, Heart It Out is a data-driven platform that trains psychologists for 16 weeks before meeting a patient and offers therapy to address various issues such as depression and anxiety, family and relationships, work life, career guidance, sexuality, better lifestyle, and bipolar disorder, among others.
With six psychologists on board, therapy services are priced at Rs 1,000 for individuals, Rs 1,500 for couples, Rs 2,000 for families while psychology students can avail the services at 50 percent of the cost. This is because they want more psychology students to reach out and have access to therapy as they will be enabling more people in the future.
In addition , they also organise two different events. Buddy Circle is a peer support group for anxiety and depression, and parenting. The startup plans on including more topics like procrastination, in the future.
The other event is Welcome Wagon, a walkathon on the first Sunday of every month, where Bengalureans and newcomers to the city make friends and introduce newcomers to the city.
“One of the biggest things people struggle with in urban mobility is loneliness, not understanding the language and culture that creates a lot of animosity, anger, and differences,” Nithya adds.
Bootstrapped so far with an initial investment of Rs 3 lakh, the startup broke even in March 2020.
Life after the pandemic
Nithya is aware of the increased importance of mental well-being since people started practising social distancing after the Government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to curb the COVID-19 outbreak.
As the demand for help doubled, the startup quickly responded with a free two-month-long helpline called Briefly within four days of announcement of the lockdown. Around 27 psychologists volunteered to address the current trauma caused by the global pandemic and the looming uncertainty faced by people. The team helped over 600 individuals during this period.
Nithya shares an incident that happened three weeks ago, when a 25-year-old man in the city who lost his uncle to COVID-19 reached out to them. “There is a lot of anger that is directed towards the world and society and then there’s the guilt that the person may have been an asymptomatic carrier as well.”
She says that the pandemic is also taking a toll on psychologists too, as they deal with human emotions behind the COVID-19 related statistics that are being reported.
In the future, Nithya hopes to expand the startup across India and hire psychologists who can speak in different languages and have different specialisations to deal with unique problems.
Interestingly, the entrepreneur shares that the mental health space is a “blue pond” in India with little competition. “I wish there were more people doing cutting-edge work we could learn from, because in the end, we are serving the people who need us very badly.”
Nithya left behind a 40-hour work week to walk the odd path of entrepreneurship that entails an 80-hour work week. And one misconception she hopes to debunk is that mental health support is not only for those who are ill, but a service to that will help people lead better lives.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan