St. Petersburg, Florida-based TAO Connect is making its digital self-help and therapy tool direct to consumers for the first time, after previously offering it via schools, community health centers, and employee assistance plans.
The company will offer a monthly subscription to its mobile app, which contains interactive educational content around stress, anxiety, resilience training, alcohol and drug use, communications and relationships, anger management, problem solving, and recovery skills from addiction. For an additional charge users will be able to set up short visits with therapists over the phone.
“We kind of grew out of the University of Florida. I was the director of the counseling center there and for about 30 years provided services in student mental health and worked in psychology faculty,” Dr. Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer, told MobiHealthNews. “One of our issues was that we never could meet demand. There were more people who needed help than we could possibly accommodate effectively. … We had to find a way to get effective services to more people with the resources that we already had. We started looking, really, internationally at models and landed on one primarily out of Australia where you combine high-quality online educational modules and practice tools on apps with short phone conversations with a therapist instead of hour-long sessions.”
The company launched in beta at nine universities. They’re now live in 85, plus community health centers, employee assistance plans, and one government contract with the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“When we tested the protocol and compared students treated with the online system to students who received face-to-face weekly therapy, the students who used the online system made more progress than students who were seen in face-to-face therapy,” Benton said.
The company will offer the program for $25 per month or $100 for six months, which includes access to all of the self-help tools. Therapy visits will cost more, though usually still less than a face-to-face visit, Benton said.
“All of our programs, protocols, treatments — none of them are that unusual,” she said. “It’s cognitive behavioral therapy or behavioral activation, motivational interview, those sorts of things. The difference is we present our materials in very high-production-quality ‘edutainment’ format with actors and scenes and animations and engaging interactive, along with a companion app that has practice tools that go with the educational modules. We also have progress measures so people can track change over time and see how they’re benefiting and we have dashboards, so that if you are working with a therapist you can both see what you’re doing and how it’s working for you.”
The company recently introduced a machine-learning powered personal messaging tool that learns over time when the best time to reach out to a user is and what the best self-help tools to suggest are. It’s one of two machine learning tools TAO Connect has developed.
“We’ve had a couple of National Science Foundation grants, and those grants have been to develop machine-learning-based programs,” Benton said. “[The other] is called the Mind Elevator, which helps people to change cognitive distortions. It’s built using natural language processing sentiment analysis, so people can enter a thought or feeling and get feedback on that, encouraging them to modify it in some way to make it more helpful and less distorted.”
Benton hopes TAO Connect can address critical access disparities to mental health. The app is designed to be able to screen out people who need therapist intervention and not just self-help, but self-help tools will almost always be better than no access to care at all.
“My lifelong goal is trying to reduce behavioral health disparities by bringing affordable, effective, and accessible treatment to underserved populations,” Benton said. “That’s my goal. If I can change the way we deliver mental health so far more of the population has access to effective resources, then I’ve achieved my life goal.”