Solomé Tibebu has been involved in the digital mental health space since she was 16. Her journey was prompted by necessity. As a teenager she struggled with anxiety and OCD, but in 2006 there were fewer resources.
“My dad being Ethiopian, and my mom being Polish, and immigrating here they didn’t even have a phrase for OCD in either of their languages, and no connections to local resources,” Tibebu said. “So, it was a lot of barriers to eventually getting the help that I needed.”
When she was a teenager Tibebu formed a peer-support blog to help other adolescents dealing with the same issue.
“At the time on this website we used forums and stuff like that, and now even in the last couple of years… with the explosion of digital health solutions. I knew even early on then that technology was going to be a huge catalyst to expanding access to adolescents and adults alike when it comes to mental health.”
Since then Tibebu has founded her own digital health company, worked with large health tech companies and worked with the investors.
Now as an adult she is turning back to the adolescent mental health space. Earlier this week philanthropist Melinda Gates announced a new foundation seeded by her Pivotal Ventures fund and focused on adolescent mental health dubbed the Upswing Fund.
Also announced this week, Tibebu will be at the helm of the new organization serving at the director. The new fund is looking specifically to give grants to help nonprofits support youth mental health.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep cracks in America’s mental healthcare system. Young people across the country are struggling with isolation, loneliness and anxiety, but too many of them aren’t getting the services and support they need, especially young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth. It is time to focus on closing the gaps in care,” Gates said in a short video introducing the fund.
As the pandemic rages on, young people now face new obstacles to getting treatment.
“So everything from the school shut downs, which so many youth were getting their mental and emotional support through schools, and now that channel is shut down. Then mental health providers, and [with] them being financially impacted, really the pandemic had a huge impact on the mental health industry,” Tibebu said.
The foundation will be zeroing in on the needs of teens and tweens of color and those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. Tibebu said that these two populations have particular needs that aren’t being met. On its website, the fund notes that there are 48% fewer visits made to mental health providers at large by Black and Hispanic adolescents, compared to their white peers, citing the International Journal of Health Services.
“On top of the pandemic, all of the police brutality and racial injustice … is basically retraumatizing youth every time they see that on twitter and Instagram,” she said. “LGBTQ youth, the example that I share often is, there are, even with school shut downs, a teletherapy provider who wants to offer video therapy for LGBTQ teens.
“But if they are at home, and aren’t out yet, and don’t have the privacy to talk, and they are too scared for parents to be hearing in the next room, well they aren’t going to be using those solutions. So some of these innovative tools like text-space mental health supports could be more suited for them. I’m excited for the flexibility to find those innovative solutions.”
The Upswing Fund has two tracks: one for surge capacity grants, which will be focused on more traditional mental health providers, and a systems-enabler track. The systems enabler track is more innovation focused, which leaves the door open for digital health solutions and nonprofits.
“Those are going to be for organizations that are focused on improving the ecosystem for adolescent mental health. We are flexible for what tactic we are going to use for them to carry out their missions. It could be a piece of software innovation. It could be policy. It could be a stigma reduction communication campaign,” Tibebu said. “I’m open to the tactic, and in fact I hope to be surprised by some solution we’ve never heard of before.”
In general, Tibebu said that digital mental health has come a long way since she started the teen support blog. One area that she noted could continue to grow in the future is validation. She said that organizations with more resources could can help support these efforts in the future.
“Entrepreneurs I know, they care about the topic, but at the same time they are overwhelmed with, ‘Oh we can’t afford an RCT right now. We are just getting started.’ I think that it’s nice there is more awareness of bringing clinical advising earlier on into their development process and having clinicians with more expertise in the space in their leadership team early on. But I’m also optimistic about different solutions helping these organizations with their validations.”
She mentioned another group backed by Pivotal Ventures, called Headstream Accelerator, that is an incubator working to help develop impact measurement tools to help better understand how well products are working in the field.
While social media and technology have often been cited as a negative factor in teens’ mental health, she said there is also a lot of opportunity there.
“There is a lot of news around how social media is impacting youth negatively, and I do want to acknowledge those things too. But I am inspired by how we’ve gone from the basic table stakes, online CBT tools, to the more personalized solutions for adolescents.”
As for the future of mental health innovation, she sees it as having a lot of promises.
“I do believe that mindfulness and those kinds of solutions started the conversation and just consumer perception around mental health. Stigma has reduced a little bit around anxiety and depression, [but] not so much for SMI [serious mental illness]. But it’s a start, and I definitely think the next generation is thinking very differently about it – their comfort to use digital tools to be able to address anxiety and depression.”
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