There are lots of startups promising to improve your physical health — and with the imminent release of the Apple Watch, not to mention the flood of other wearable devices, it’s a safe bet that they’re going to keep coming.
Today, however, a startup called Joyable is launching to tackle the mental health side of things, starting with social anxiety. The company is also announcing that it has raised a seed round of $2.05 million from Thrive Capital, Harrison Metal, and angel investors including Benchmark Capital co-founder Andy Rachleff.
I’m no mental health expert, so I had to ask a basic question: What separates the clinical condition of social anxiety from the general anxiety that felt by everyone else? CEO Peter Shalek (at left in the photo above) said that with Joyable’s clients, social anxiety “dramatically impairs their lives.” For example, there’s a mother who couldn’t drop her kids off at school because she was worried about the judgment of other parents, or the actress who couldn’t bear to audition.
Shalek and his co-founder Steve Marks told me they’ve both been close to people who’ve suffered from social anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety affects 15 million Americans, but 85 percent of them are not receiving adequate treatment. Shalek and Marks aim to make that treatment more accessible, at a fraction of the cost of seeing a therapist in-person.
At the same time, Shalek emphasized that they’re not inventing an entirely new approach: “The interesting thing is that the clinical side of it is solved — people know what to do.” So Joyable is simply offering an online, interactive version of what’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
The company has also recruited a number of mental health experts as advisors, such as Dr. Richard Heimberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and director of the university’s Adult Anxiety Clinic. Other advisors include Drs. Lisa McTeague and Lanny Berman.
Shalek and Marks gave me a quick demo of the product. Of course, it was only a tiny slice of a 12-week program, but it conveyed some of the basics of how users interact with Joyable — identifying an event that was causing anxiety (Marks chose an upcoming TechCrunch demo as his example), identifying the negative patterns in his thinking, and proposing alternative, helpful thoughts: “I probably won’t screw it up because I’ve done this activity many times.” (Hey, you did a great job, Steve.)
Marks said Joyable’s activities fall into three broad categories — educational (learning about the causes of anxiety), thought-based (recognizing and combating anxious thoughts, like in the activity described above), and behavioral (offline activities like speaking up and a meeting or getting coffee with a friend).
In addition, Joyable connects customers with a coach who works with them over the phone, email, and text to offer encouragement and keep them on-track. Shalek said the coaches often have a background in coaching or mentoring, and can be described more broadly as “people who are empathetic and are good listeners,” who are then trained by Joyable.
The program, which costs $99 a month, is currently web-only — Shalek said the website will also work on smartphones and tablets, with plans for native apps too. And while the company is only officially launching today, it says it’s been in testing for months, with 90 percent of initial users reporting a decrease in anxiety.
And yes, the vision goes beyond social anxiety.
“We say that we want to cure the world of anxiety and depression,” Shalek said. “There are a lot of reasons why social anxiety is a good place to start, but we imagine going into generalized anxiety, OCD, PTSD, a whole range of conditions.”