NEWARK — Jacob Boyle had graduated from college two years ago and had mental health issues, but when he contacted a counseling service he was told there was a three-month wait.
Boyle was frustrated, but he knew he was not alone. Many of his friends were trying to cope with anxiety and depression too, and they too had trouble finding help.
“There was this glaring imbalance between the number of students seeking care and the number of professionals able to provide it,” said Boyle, 24, of Hillsdale, Bergen County.
Boyle was working on a solution. He created MARCo, an interactive robot that can instantly become a friend or therapist for help teens and young adults navigate the complexities of life.
With the device, Boyle hopes to join other New Jersey startup who are developing technology that can extend behavioral health care services to a population that, in the age of COVID, is stretched thin.
It remains unclear whether a robot, mobile app, or text can be an effective substitute for in-person therapy. But private investors are pouring millions into tech companies to develop products that can empower mental health counselors to provide more care.
“Because of all the pressures young people face today, there is so much need and so much opportunity for technology to really play a meaningful role,” said Joanne Lin, director of Newark Venture Partners, a Investment Funds.
Boyle knows firsthand. He said he struggled with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts throughout high school and college as the pressure to succeed weighed on him.
He attended the College of New Jersey at Ewing, where he studied mechanical engineering and physics, while working full-time at a military robotics company. But he switched gears to providing mental health assistance instead.
Boyle invented MARCo, short for Mental Health Companion Robot. Weighing less than 2 pounds, he’s soft and fluffy with two non-judgmental eyes and no mouth.
It looks like your favorite childhood soft toy to whom you confided your secrets. Unless you hold its hand to activate it, MARCo can respond, listening for key words to provide advice or alert your contacts in an emergency.
“As common as the conversation about stigma and mental health is these days, there are still a lot of people who just don’t want to talk about it,” Boyle said.
Can technology fill the gaps?
The demand for mental health services is increasing.
During COVID-19, approximately 55% of high school students reported being emotionally abused by an adult in the household; 44% felt continually sad or hopeless; and 37% said they had poor mental health, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
Meanwhile, half of workers said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic, and only 38% believed their mental health was being adequately taken care of by their managers, according to a survey released Monday by the Conference Board.
There are not enough mental health counselors for everyone. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, only two-thirds of New Jersey’s population has enough clinicians.
And the rest of the country has a lot more ground to catch up than the Garden State, the agency reported.
The mismatch between supply and demand has sparked an arms race to develop technology that can help advisers provide more assistance.
Mental health start-ups attracted $5.5 billion globally in 2021, up 139% from the previous year, according to CB Insights, a research firm.
In New Jersey, Newark Venture Partners, a fund whose backers include RWJBarnabas Health and New Jersey’s Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, invests in local tech entrepreneurs.
Among them: Competence, a Jersey City-based company, said this week it closed with $6.2 million in funding from an investment group that included Newark Venture Partners.
Handspring is trying to rethink mental health services for children. It plans to have advisers on staff and physical offices, starting with one in Morristown this fall. He plans to have a technology platform to help clients practice their coping skills. And it’s trying to recruit insurers to make the services affordable, said co-founder Sahil Choudhry.
Ideally, therapists could treat mental illnesses in fewer sessions, improve outcomes for their patients, and open up time to heal more.
It would be nice to have lots of therapists, “but what we really should be doing is looking at therapy as treatment,” Choudhry said. “You learn skills and you improve. You should be able to go into a maintenance phase where you don’t need therapy, but you can practice the skills you’ve learned.”
Is artificial intelligence far behind?
Mental health experts say the technology has its limits. For example, it is easier to make a diagnosis if they can observe body language or facial expressions. And patients could easily lose interest in digital-only therapies.
But they don’t dismiss the importance of technology. They have found success during the pandemic talking to patients by phone and video. And other tools like mobile apps are on the way.
“These things are still in their infancy, but there is tremendous opportunity to develop these types of approaches to provide better, more creative and effective care, in addition to what we are doing now,” said the Dr. Gabriel Kaplan, Chief Medical Officer. for RWJBarnabas Health’s line of behavioral health and addictions services.
Could a robot with artificial intelligence be far behind?
Boyle still has obstacles. He has a patent pending. He took care of assembling it himself, at least for now. And it would need to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration if it wanted to market MARCo as a diagnostic tool that can be prescribed by clinicians.
For now, MARCo can be sold as a toy — a toy that has a simple, friendly face, a neutral gray color and, Boyle said, has your best interests at heart.
“Hopefully MARCo can be something that at worst pulls them out (from low points) and at best makes sure they never hit that point to begin with,” Boyle said.
Michael L. Diamond is a business journalist who has written about the New Jersey economy and the health care industry for over 20 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]