In Southeast Asia, a handful of mental health-related start-ups is trying to fill the gaps between the expectations of a growing middle class, limited public health resources, a rural-urban health divide and, in some cases, lingering taboos.

In Thailand, a tech start-up with the deliberately ambiguous name of Ooca is offering video sessions with therapists through a website and a smartphone app. Users can select whatever is troubling them, from stress to relationships to depression, check out doctor bios, and make an appointment.

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Founded two years ago by a young Thai ex-military dentist who herself suffered from depression, Ooca has since raised $320,000 in funding from Singapore-based Expara. Recently, it signed on 11 companies with a total of 35,000 employees as clients, including some of Thailand’s biggest corporations, adding to Ooca’s existing 42,000 individual registered users.

The fact that Ooca is being embraced in the workplace is the latest sign that taboos around mental health—which range from personal failings to the work of spirits—are falling away. For employers, the pay-off is happier workers, better productivity and a wealth of (anonymized) data that can help identify budding problems in the workplace, whether it’s workload levels or work environment. “It’s like a silent heat map detector within the company,” Ooca founder Kanpassorn “Eix” Suriyasangpetch tells JWT Intelligence.

Rising awareness across Asia

In “The Well Economy: APAC Edition,” a recent report by JWT Intelligence exploring changing attitudes to health and wellness around Asia Pacific, a survey of 2,500 consumers in five countries (China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia) found that mental health is top of mind across all generations. 71 percent of those surveyed associate health with mental health, which was more than the 68 percent who associate health with overall physical condition.

73 percent said they felt stress and anxiety to be among the biggest risk factors to becoming unwell, according to the report released late last year. Personal finances and work were the top sources of stress.

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South of Thailand, in neighboring Malaysia, a start-up called Naluri employs psychologists to help users manage chronic disease risks. “The problem with healthcare today is people are treating chronic disease and mental health separately,” Naluri founder Azran Osman-Rani tells JWT Intelligence. “They are inter-related.” To help integrate mental health into healthcare, the former AirAsia X and iflix CEO—who also happens to be a triathlete—is targeting employers as well as insurers and hospitals as Naluri clients.

Through a smartphone app, Naluri’s panel of psychologists use a chat function to help users work through mental blocks, which may stem from marital strife or work stress. Users also work with Naluri’s dieticians and exercise experts, who then help shift intent into action.

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“Those with chronic diseases are three times more likely to have mood disorders like depression and anxiety,” Osman-Rani tells JWT Intelligence. “There is also a biological link – e.g. when you are under chronic stress, your cortisol hormones are on overdrive and this creates inflammation that leads to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol build-up. It also screws up your insulin regulation.”

Personal mission

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Ooca founder Kanpassorn “Eix” Suriyasangpetch

In Suriyasangpetch’s case, her business idea for Ooca—a made-up name—stemmed from personal experience. She grew up in a family where having a mental illness was considered shameful. In fact, her mother did not approve of her seeing a psychiatrist.

Later, as a young military dentist stationed far from home, she traveled six hours each way just to see her therapist in Bangkok—not counting the hours waiting at the clinic once she got there. “This is a personal mission,” says Suriyasangpetch. “I see this as a big problem to be solved.”

In Thailand, government hospitals tend to be oversubscribed, while private clinics have spare capacity. And while Thailand has one mental health provider for every 80,000 population, the second-best ratio in Southeast Asia after Singapore, most are concentrated in big cities.

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For individuals, thirty minutes online with a board-certified psychologist on Ooca starts at 1,000 baht ($32), while a session with a psychiatrist starts at 1,500 baht. With a separate pricing structure for employers, Ooca also caters to mental health in the workplace, as mental health comes out of the shadows globally.

Ooca is also reaching out to young people even before they join the workforce. In January, Ooca launched a CSR platform—called the Wall of Sharing—to solicit corporate donations to fund therapy for university students who need it.

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