Could an app bring community mental health services to a snap?

For contractor Montreal Cainthe country’s mental health crisis is hitting close to home.

He recalled the day a loved one struggling with mental illness disappeared and the feeling of panic as the family rushed to get mental health services and support so they could bring him home safely. security.

Cain’s family is not alone. In Wisconsin, where he is based, there are at least 859,000 adults who live with a mental health problem, which is about three times the population of Madison. Yet more than 266,000 adults did not receive the mental health care they needed. Statewide, more than 2.1 million people live in areas that do not have enough mental health professionals, including for crisis stabilization.

Deep down, Cain feared his loved one’s mental health crisis would lead to unnecessary escalation — an all-too-familiar story among families struggling to overcome mental health issues in a broken system, especially among communities. of color.

“I didn’t know where they were, I didn’t know how they felt, but I knew they were having a manic episode,” Cain said. Technically. “If you’re living with mental illness, there are so many different scenarios.” These sentiments are confirmed in a 2019 report by the University of Wisconsinwho reviewed behavioral health system gaps: “When symptoms worsen in the absence of adequate services, the constant concern is that the behavior of consumers of color is more likely to be considered criminal.”

Although Cain’s loved one ultimately received uneventful care, he couldn’t help but think that something worse could have happened. He wanted to find a better way to deal with mental health crises.

“There’s a phrase that goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a cup of cure,'” Cain said. “I knew there had to be a better way to prevent these things.”

Technology as crisis intervention

In 2020, Cain founded HouseCall Wisconsin, a technology company focused on crisis prevention and response. The company has developed a mobile application called MERAwhich allows individuals, caregivers and family members to monitor signs of behavioral health – and can quickly connect its users to mental health professionals in times of crisis.

MERA stands for Monitor, Engage, Recommend and Defend. The app, which uses assistive technology, integrates with smartwatches to monitor users’ heart rate and stress levels. If the app identifies high levels of stress, for example, the app will then engage with users through a “wellness checkup”, including a questionnaire to monitor how a user is feeling, as well as recommendations for practicing mindfulness or seek professional help. .

Behind the app is the MERA Response Team, a group of mental health counselors licensed and certified by the State of Wisconsin from AMRI Consulting Services who can provide support as needed; the effort falls under the nonprofit arm of HouseCall. The MERA Response Team also provides ongoing support, including evidence-based treatments like music therapy, cognitive therapy, counseling and peer support.

Cain said the support can be deployed anywhere in Milwaukee County in about 30 minutes. All MERA programs are designed to anticipate mental health crises.

“Our goal is simply to make sure you know someone is there to support you and your loved ones to have peace of mind,” the founder said.

Members of the MERA team. Montreal Cain is fourth from left. (Courtesy picture)

Technology as a community service

According to the state health department, Wisconsin received more than 4,760 requests for crisis services in 2020 in Milwaukee alone. Many of these calls are routed by law enforcement or handled in emergency rooms.

Cain sees MERA as a valuable tool that could help “lighten the load” for law enforcement. He is currently meeting with the police department and the county’s crisis response task force for a potential partnership. While nothing is set in stone yet, Cain said he has received support from several community leaders and organizations, including Wisconsin Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services.

In the meantime, Cain is actively sharing data with the county and working to develop a youth mental health initiative he’s called “Better Ways to Cope.” The pilot program will cover the costs of a smart phone, smart watch, phone bill, MERA app and various modes of therapy to support youth mental health.

The program will also provide crisis management training to families of loved ones seeking mental health support. Cain is seeking $150,000 in a fundraiser set to launch later this summer to support development of the pilot.

In the future, Cain plans to make the MERA app available in all cities – and even as a standard accessibility app on any smartphone. He imagines making mental health support as easy as swiping right.

So far, MERA has served more than 100 families in the Milwaukee area, Cain said. As the startup seeks to scale its technology and services, Cain said he is focused on finding strategic partnerships to expand MERA’s reach and improve mental health support for families like his.

“The more I connect with people, I find that because of our work, people are ready to have these conversations and open [their] phones,” Cain said. “It is no longer a taboo. And I think we have the right energy, the right team, and the perfect timing for the market to be ready for this innovation.

Watch’s full conversation with Cain here:

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