Mental health challenges are a global problem, growing in scope and magnitude over the years. It is estimated that nearly 1 billion people around the world suffer from mental health challenges in 2021. This is nearly 15% of the world’s population, up from 10% recorded in 2017.
The story is a lot graver in South Africa with reports claiming that nearly a third of the population is suffering from one form of mental health challenge or another.
To make matters worse, up to 80% of South Africans who need mental health support are unable to easily access it, according to South Africa’s National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan 2013-2020. But one South African app is looking to change that narrative.
The brainchild of a clinical psychologist, Allan Sweidan, and the former GM and Director of Uber in Sub-Saharan Africa, Alon Lits, the Panda App helps people to anonymously connect to an array of valuable resources and more or less invest time into their mental wellbeing.
Speaking on the reason behind the app, CEO Allan Sweidan told me that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the mental health crisis in South Africa. This exacerbation raised the urgency with which mental health support needs to be provided to increasing numbers of South Africans.
“While Covid-19 has had a catastrophic impact on the physical wellbeing of millions of people around the world, the pandemic has also taken a hugely significant toll on people’s mental health.Allan Sweidan
“Panda was conceived and developed as a viable way of responding to this growing mental health crisis at scale, not only through the digital delivery of support and information but also by helping to destigmatise mental issues,” Sweidan says.
How Panda works
Panda app is a digital platform designed to give users easy access to mental health information, community support and expert help. One feature which helps the platform achieve this is the Bamboo Forest feature which allows users to engage with a community of other app users who may be facing similar challenges.
The discussions are audio-only and can be held among peers or facilitated by experts to help users gain a better understanding of mental health-related topics. Users can also create sub-communities that align with their individual interests or support needs; depression, financial stress, anxiety, or even guidance for families with loved ones facing mental health challenges.
The app also offers scientifically validated assessment tools to enable users to objectively measure their mental wellbeing. And a gamified tracking tool lets them document and monitor the progress they are making on their personal mental health journey.
A library of evidence-based content, based on key themes from dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and positive psychology, is available to app users who can then participate in supporting activities designed to help them enhance their life skills.
The Panda app also allows users to book up to seven 30-minute text-based chat sessions with mental health professionals over a period of 14 days. Future functionality will allow users to book 1:1 sessions with mental health professionals who host sessions in the Bamboo Forest or who are listed in the marketplace section of the app.
All of the features in the app are free for the month of October. The Bamboo Forest feature will always, will always be free, and so will most of the screening assessments that are already available. Chat support is free for now but will become a paid-for feature in the coming months.
Resource contents on the platform will also be free of charge until the end of the year. However, Panda plans to offer a comprehensive library from 2022 and that service will be paid for. The platform plans to make its offerings affordable.
When the app starts offering consultations with experts, users will have to pay what the mental health experts usually charge.
In its bid to make the services that experts offer on the Panda platform as accessible as possible, the CEO says it is working with different insurers, including medical aid schemes. He however noted that the challenge with the current medical aid schemes is that they offer the most benefits when their members are already in great distress or are severely functionally impaired.
“We hope that through embracing a triage system, with people getting the right care at the right time by the right experts, we might be able to convince medical schemes of our value-driven model and that more benefits will be made available. We are pleased to say that we are making good progress in this area,” he told me.
While bemoaning the overall shortage of mental health experts in South Africa, Allan Sweidan says the startup is working with “a fantastic group of mental health professionals who will be hosting sessions every day from 10 am-10 pm.”
This is in a bid to build a two-sided marketplace on the platform to avoid a situation where users land on the app and find no sessions available. The founder hopes that many more mental health experts will use the app to build their professional profiles and provide free services in their areas of expertise.
“We are already seeing strong interest from the mental health professional community. We hope that experts will join Panda because Panda will endeavour to match the right patient with the right expert at the right time, thus creating a more efficient, value-driven system, and more meaningful work for professionals.Allan Sweidan
Technology is hardly ever local for very long. It is usually only a matter of time before it is scaled beyond a city or even a country. Asked what Panda’s expansion plans are, the CEO said there are no such plans for now.
“Our focus is currently on South Africa. We want to ensure that we remain local and cater to local audiences everywhere we go. In a future release of the app, we will give people the opportunity to host sessions in a language of their choice. We hope that this will make certain mental health-related topics even more accessible,” he said.
The CEO, however, said the startup also has aspirations to build a global company that will contend with the leading players in the mental health technology space.
It is no longer news that the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the mental health conditions of people around the world. With South Africa being the worst-hit African country, it can be expected that this impact on mental well-being is particularly very significant in the country.
South Africa needs all the help it can get in this regard and it’s good to see a South African platform like Panda striving to make this help available and easily accessible to the people.
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