How a UoA alum is helping to fight the mental health crisis
It’s no secret that many people living in Aotearoa struggle with their mental health. In 2018, 18% of New Zealanders reported having poor mental wellbeing and the latest NZ Health Survey revealed that one in 10 New Zealanders had experienced psychological distress in the four weeks leading up to completing the survey.1,2 There are also inequities in the mental health outcomes of people who identify as Māori, Pacific, diverse genders, and among those who do not identify as heterosexual.3,4,5 Not to mention students are at increased risk of experiencing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.6,7 There are many brilliant people seeking to mitigate mental health inequities and improve the wellbeing of all people living in Aotearoa. One of these people is Dr. Angela Lim, who talked to me about the ways she’s helping to break down barriers that inhibit people’s ability to access and get the most out of mental health care.
Dr. Lim is the co-founder of Clearhead, “a digital mental health platform that helps people easily find the help they need, whether that’s self-help or professional help with a therapist.” Clearhead’s full suite of tools can only be accessed through an employer or university-supported plan. Unfortunately for us, UoA is not yet a subscriber (I feel a petition coming on). But you should speak to your employer—if you work at a supermarket, you might be in luck! Clearheard has a partnership with Foodstuffs. If your employer is not already on board, perhaps you can slip into their suggestion box and be a driver of change. Nonetheless, everyone can download a free version from a preferred app store.
Both versions of Clearhead have a multitude of features, from an AI therapist and self-help tools, to a system for booking appointments with human therapists. The app tries to match you with the best therapist for you, based on your needs and preferences. For example, if you’re experiencing performance anxiety around exam time, you’d be able to see someone who can help with that. Perhaps you are a person with, or thinks they may have a learning disability, such as ADHD, Clearhead can help connect you to a health professional with expertise in that area, receive a diagnosis, and access medication.
In 2018, as a recent UoA med grad, Dr. Lim co-founded Clearhead. She could not see any intervention making a meaningful difference to the state of New Zealanders’ mental health and “felt there was a huge role for technology to play.” Dr. Lim explained that digital platforms encourage people to ask for help, especially if they are worried about being judged by a mental health provider. Not only does Clearhead try to alleviate fears of stigmatisation, but the development team is dedicated to delivering services many people feel comfortable accessing. For example, as part of their content, they have former All Black Nehe Milner-Skudder discuss his mental health challenges and what he does to improve his wellbeing. Another major barrier Clearhead is overcoming is wait times. In the public system, it currently takes at least six months to see a mental health professional. With Clearhead, if you need more than what the tools can offer you, or a more long-term solution than the helplines it can refer you to, the app can help you get seen by a human therapist within three days.
When I asked Dr. Lim about how the app can meet the diverse and changing needs of all its users, she explained that the system is intelligent enough to identify trends in users’ needs. Clearhead is constantly being evaluated so that users can be sure it is providing them with evidence-based support. One example she gave was how “because of the pandemic there was a huge increase in people searching for meaning,” so they “were able to create a tool that can help people find meaning and purpose.”
Dr. Lim’s endeavours don’t stop at Clearhead. Small Steps is a website that was developed in collaboration with Clearhead and the Ministry of Health. The website can be accessed by anyone and offers a number of tools developed by Clearhead. Small Steps is specifically targeted at young people and is designed with NZ’s cultural context in mind. Another collaboration with the government has produced First Steps. It’s a service that gives Auckland small business owners unlimited access to free therapy sessions—maybe you have a side-hustle that would qualify you for this service or maybe you know someone who could benefit? Regardless of your situation, spread the word!
So, how does a mental health professional look after their wellbeing? For Dr. Lim it’s about “Taking those proactive steps—journalling, meditating, going for runs. These are simple habits that I do a few times a week to feel a little bit more in control of my life, in all the hectic-ness.”
While the determinants of mental health are complex, everybody deserves to access safe and effective care when they need it. Dr. Lim and her team are courageously filling a gap, improving our ability to take a small step in the direction of better mental wellbeing.
1 Statistics New Zealand. Wellbeing statistics: June 2020 quarter. https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/wellbeing-statistics-june-2020-quarter#health
2 Ministry of Health. Annual Update of Key Results 2020/2021: New Zealand Health Survey. https://www.health.govt.nz/publication/annual-update-key-results-2020-21-new-zealand-health-survey
3 Williams et al. The Associations Between Cultural Identity and Mental Health Outcomes for Indigenous Māori Youth in New Zealand. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2018.00319/full?utm_source=General+Sub#B1
4 Lee et al. Ethnic inequality in diagnosis with depression and anxiety disorders. https://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/ethnic-inequality-in-diagnosis-with-depression-and-anxiety-disorders
5 Tan et al. Mental Health of People of Diverse Genders and Sexualities in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Findings from the New Zealand Mental Health Monitor. Mental-Health-of-People-of-Diverse-Genders-and-Sexualities-in-Aotearoa-New-Zealand-Findings-from-the-New-Zealand-Mental-Health-Monitor.pdf (researchgate.net)
6 Winter et al. A Longitudinal Study of Mental Wellbeing in Students in Aotearoa New Zealand Who Transitioned Into PhD Study. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.659163/full
7 Samaranayake et al. Sleep disorders, depression, anxiety and satisfaction with life among young adults: a survey of university students in Auckland, New Zealand. https://assets-global.website-files.com/5e332a62c703f653182faf47/5e332a62c703f6d9572fd89b_Samaranayake.pdf