The power of collective action: Highlighting opportunities in digital youth mental health

Innovation and opportunity abounds in the youth mental health space, as evidenced by increased investments and interest. But how do investors know where their money can be most impactful? At Aspen Ideas: Health, RockHealth.org joined leaders in the youth mental health space to explore potential areas of catalytic investment, alongside a broader conversation around mental health at this year’s event.

During the panel discussion, “Innovative Investments to Protect Youth Mental Health,” several critical insights emerged.

Payers and investors are seeking help in navigating the vast digital youth mental health landscape

The digital youth mental health space is growing, fueled by increased investments and government initiatives. According to the Rock Health Digital Health Venture Funding Database, from 2018 to 2023, mental health has been U.S. digital health’s top-funded clinical indication by dollars invested amounting to $12.8B over the last 5 years with $4.2B of that going to youth mental health innovations representing 249 investors across 130 deals.

Amidst this innovation influx, Margaret Laws, President and CEO of Hopelab, said funders should keep in mind several factors to maximize the impact of their investments. First, she recommends seeking start-ups that are building a viable and profitable solution. Second, companies should be engaging the end user when designing their product – in this case, youth need to be part of designing the solution. Lastly, innovators should be thinking about how to engage a diverse set of payers to build financial sustainability.

“It takes really passionate people across all the sectors to create companies that are viable and meet the needs of young people, particularly those who are most often marginalized,” Laws said.

From a payer perspective, many of them already offer “low-hanging fruit” within mental health care services, said Solome Tibebu, Founder and CEO of Behavioral Health Tech. As more digital health solutions tailored to specific conditions go to market, she said, payers need help assessing what solutions they should cover and how these solutions work together.

Supporting youth agency is key to earning trust

Many adolescents and young adults use digital tools to manage their well-being in a variety of ways, including mental health care. According to Rock Health’s 2023 Consumer Adoption of Digital Health Survey, 31% of 18-24 year old respondents reported having used at least one modality of virtual mental health care. Notably, the same survey found greater percentages of 18-24 year-old Black, Asian, and Latine respondents have used virtual care for mental health compared to white respondents of the same ages. The data points to an opportunity to invest in solutions better tailored to the unique, lived experiences of these populations.

Ashley Edwards, Founder and CEO of MindRight Health, said she directly asks her youth end-users how to gain their trust. Dependability, non-judgment, and honoring their self-expression and self-determination arose as key responses. Additionally, building a team that represents the population being served helps build bonds that maintain user engagement.

“As opposed to us moving to what we expect of the user, Edwards said, “we move to what the user expects of us. Our job is to be ready when people need support,” she added.

It takes a village to build a successful digital youth mental health intervention

A wide range of actors are spurring the creation, adoption, and growth of digital youth mental health innovations. During the 2021-22 school year, 17% of public schools offered telehealth services. Companies are also partnering with hospitals and public health departments to reach their target populations. These alliances translate to meaningful revenue: from 2023 to Q1 2024, four digital youth mental health companies alone secured nearly $550M dollars in public-sector, school-based contracts.

Venture funding paired with the network, resources, and capital from philanthropic organizations is important to iterate and strengthen youth mental health solutions, said Laws. Teen advisory boards represent an exciting development in the digital youth mental health space, Tibebu added. These groups enable companies to obtain direct, sustained feedback from the end-users they seek to target. This engagement is particularly important when seeking to engage historically underserved communities.

As Edwards put it, “Equity cannot be an add-on service.”

Thank you to Margaret Laws (Hopelab), Solome Tibebu (Behavioral Health Tech), and Ashley Edwards (MindRight Health) for sharing their expertise. RockHealth.org—together with Pivotal Ventures, Fiore Ventures, Hopelab, and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation—will continue to explore how and where best to support youth mental health innovation.

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