How three guys and a smartphone are revolutionizing the world of mental health

Jonathan Levitt is a a veteran marketer, who has been at the top of his field for over two decades. He has spent over 25 years helping a diverse list of clients understand their audience, and leverage technology and data to build better products and customer experiences. He’s worked with some of the biggest brands in the world. He’s now turning his attention to the category of mental health technology.
We sat down with Jonathan to get the lowdown on how he’s working to change the way we diagnose and manage mental illness, and kick stigma’s ass along the way.

WWC: Our readers will remember you as someone who likes to push the envelope. This time you’re pushing the mental health envelope. Tell us about that.

JL: Two friends / business partners and I have started a company called Mind Mental Health Technologies and we’ve developed a mobile app called mind.me, which helps people diagnose, manage, and ultimately predict depression.

Even better, the user has nothing to do once the app is installed. Mind.me is totally passive and ambient, requiring no effort or input from the user. We practice what we call a “set it and forget” philosophy. This is a very unique approach…some say disruptive (one of my favorite words).

350 Million people around the world battle with depression. Depending on what country you live in, between 35-85% of people remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated. The scary stats go on and on. Each more infuriating than the next.

Bottom line, yes…we need to do something about the global epidemic that is mental illness. And we need to look at new and innovative ways of managing, treating and preventing the disease.

WWC: What’s the idea? How did you come up with it?

JL: About a year ago, one of us (we’re three partners) began to slip into a depression. He was unaware of how badly he was doing and it took an intervention to make him see it. This led to a hypothesis: When someone is slipping into a depression are they numb to the signs and therefore, can other people see it before the patient? The answer was yes.

We then took a look at the DSM (Diagnostics Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) and the PHQ-9, a framework developed by Pfizer and a widely accepted diagnostic tool for depression. Depression is diagnosed if a patient can identify the presence of five of nine symptoms for a period of 14 days or more. After examining the symptoms, we had a second hypothesis; that we could tie these symptoms to behavior, usage data and sensors coming from a mobile device. As an example, one of the symptoms of depression is hypersomnia/insomnia (sleeping too much or too little). By watching screen on / screen off activity, we are able to determine if a patient is breaking their normal sleep patterns. This is one example, and alone is not the detection of anything really, but when combined with other data, it becomes a piece of the puzzle. And all the puzzle pieces begin to tell a story.

WWC: What have the results of testing been?

JL: We’ve gone through a few rounds of test (truth is we’ll always be testing given that our app is based in science). At first, we had to take a look at the data available to us, and what we could do with it. So we started by building just the data capture capabilities of mind.me. Nothing pretty, just a bare minimum product that collects what data we needed. We installed it on a handful of phones and after running the data through our algorithms (our magic black box) we were seeing correlations. But it was too small a sample and anecdotal at best.

The next step was to collect data at scale. So we went out and recruited 700 users from 22 countries in 4 languages. With a sample this large, and some tweaking we had done to our algorithms, we were now able to concretely detect at a rate of 91% accuracy. This was the ‘moon landing’ moment for us. We are now scheduled for clinical studies taking place over the next 12 months or so.

WWC: How do you think mind.me contributes to the fight against the mental illness stigma?

JL: So it’s funny…in all our research and testing, talking to patients from around the globe, our data shows that the stigma in North America is worse than many other parts of the world. People speak much more openly about mental health in most areas of Europe and across most of South America. Anyways, the answer is yes.

Mind.me as a product is going to change not only how we diagnose and treat depression, but help to surface insights and provide for research that will make us all more educated about the disease. Mind.me at scale will be the biggest and most comprehensive database of real time mood in the world. And knowledge is power. And power and knowledge can kick stigma’s ass.

WWC: How did you come up with the idea that your smartphone can detect major depressive episodes?

JL: We looked at the symptoms and the current ways in which depression is being diagnosed. As another example, one of the things that tends to happen to people who fall into a depression is they will begin to shut off from the outside world. Isolation is a major early indicator. Think about things like rejected calls, unanswered calls, cancelled meetings etc. Or when we look at GPS data, we typically see three zones for a user; a home zone, a work zone, and an in between zone (we call the social zone). As someone begins to isolate themselves, we will see the social zone erode. Eventually if things get bad enough, the work zone may begin to shrink and eventually disappear. All this data, along with our algorithms start to paint a picture. And we’ve identified hundreds of datasets that will help to colour it all in. Things like; amount of daylight, weather, stock performance, music choices etc.

WWC: What happens when your phone detects concerning patterns?

JL: One of the features of the app is a concept we call the “circle of trust”. When a user sets up mind.me they have the option of naming up to three people with whom the app should communicate should we detect a depressive episode. The idea is one of intervention. Sometimes that is all it takes. Think prevention over treatment. The hope for now is that by making the patient more self aware, and having family members / circle of trust members involved, that the patient receives early support, hopefully lessening the duration and intensity of a depression.

mind.me app depression

 

WWC: Our motto at Wise Women Canada is “Everyone has a story.” Would you say everyone has a mental health story? Does mind.me help tell that story?

JL: I would definitely say so on both fronts. Yes, I believe everyone has a mental health story. So like I said, 350 Million people suffer directly from depression. Add to that the people who are affected indirectly like spouses, kids, co-workers, friends etc….that number goes well beyond a billion. But I know that’s not how you meant the question. Mind.me gets to know the user over time. The longer the app runs, and the more data feeds we add to the app (we’ve identified hundreds to integrate), the more we will be able to understand triggers and outcomes on a patient by patient basis. That’s where machine learning comes in. Every patient is different and every patient has unique variables that could trigger depression. By measuring mood in real time, continuously, our stories will become increasingly concrete and increasingly granular, and therefore more measurable.

WWC: You’ve had a prolific career in the world of digital marketing. This is quite a departure. Why did you make this change?

JL: A good question. For starters I’m not sure it’s such a huge departure. My interest has always been in disruptive technologies and how to build better products, brands and experiences by leveraging data.

That said, (and I think I speak for my partners as well) I’ve reached a point in my life and career where I want my work to have more meaning. Let’s just say we are believers in a new kind of capitalism that serves humanity’s most pressing needs….That’s the legacy I think we’d all like to leave behind.

WWC: You have a personal connection to mental illness. What is it?

JL: Well…I myself battle depression. By the way, I use the word battle because I hate the word suffer or sufferer. I was diagnosed about 15 years ago and have been dealing with it ever since (although the disease goes back further than that). In 2014 I decided to be open about my battle and “come out”. Robin WIlliams had just died by suicide. It had a major impact on me. I was working as the CMO of a company called Sonic Boom, a division of National Public Relations. Our entire offering was centered around helping brands get closer to their customers based on shared beliefs and values. It felt like the perfect time for me to share my story (though not everyone at corporate thought so). And so I did…and so many people came forward after that to share their own stories. That fueled me to keep the conversation going. I’ve been on medication for about 15 years now, and managing the disease. It used to manage me.  

Jonathan Levitt mind.me co-founder
Jonathan Levitt, mind.me co-founder

WWC: You’ve brought on some influential figures in the world of mental health. Who are they and how do they support mind.me?

JL: We’ve brought three executives on board recently. After the success of our Alpha test we began to attract some attention from members of the medical community. We had already run our hypothesis by some folks at the Douglas here in Montreal, and received the nod that our premise was sound – if we could prove out the science. Once we got results of 91%, we began to look for people to round out the team. Patrick Cashman and Dr. Roger McIntyre joined mind.me as partners and Executive Chairman and Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Raymond Lam joined mind.me as our founding advisory board member. They will play a pivotal role in ensuring that we remain at the forefront of this nascent space.

WWC: Mind.me targets depression. Are there plans to open the platform to other mental illnesses?

JL: Most definitely. We plan to tackle the whole category of mental health. Depression is the area that right now, hits closest to home…after all we’re built by patients for patients. Our learnings will definitely be applicable to other forms of mental illness.

WWC: Is the app available now?

JL: We are currently in closed testing with several hundred people. We are expecting to release the app for general audience in about 3-4 weeks. The app is currently only available for Android (Android makes up 95% of the world smartphone market). We are aiming for an iOS version by summer.

WWC: Are you looking for funding?

JL: We are in fact currently looking for investors. We’ve been self financed to date but with upcoming clinical trials and the product roadmap ahead of us, we realize we’ll need to bring on some outside capital.

WWC: What’s next for mind.me?

JL: It sounds lofty – but when we sit around the boardroom table and talk about the big fat hairy goal…it’s to evolve from where we are now (detect, manage), to prediction capabilities and  eventually, prevention altogether. To be clear, our goal is to help find a cure.

For more information, contact Jonathan at: j@mind.me

 

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