Many who suffer from social anxiety, depression and other mental health problems won’t seek help from a therapist.
However, they may find a sense of community in online discussion groups and “anxiety blogs,” said Dale Cook, the chief executive and co-founder of Learn to Live, a Minneapolis-based start-up.
The company sells access to online courses for people struggling with mental health issues, and touts its strategies for engaging with sufferers.
“They’re looking for online resources because they don’t want to tell anyone, or they don’t have time to go” for face-to-face therapy, Cook said in an interview. “We’re able to identify places where sufferers go to commiserate and suffer together and say: Have you found anything that works?”
In January, Learn to Live announced that it had raised over $1 million in a fundraising round led by Eagan-based Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. The insurer said in a statement that the company’s self-directed format “offers a new approach for helping people.”
On Friday, Learn to Live was one of five companies scheduled to be showcased during an annual event sponsored by the Minnesota Health Action Group, a coalition of public and private employers trying to drive changes in health care through company-sponsored insurance plans.
“We see a lot of promise in what Learn to Live has to offer,” said Carolyn Pare, president and chief executive of the Minnesota Health Action Group, in a statement.
In 2013, Cook co-founded Learn to Live with Russell Morfitt, a psychologist who recognized several challenges in getting treatment for patients. Many with mental health problems won’t seek therapy due to social stigma issues, Cook said, adding that cost also can be a barrier.
Plus, those who ultimately do seek treatment, he said, sometimes have trouble getting timely appointments with providers.
Learn to Live’s business model initially focused on individuals who paid for access to the program.
At a retail price of $149, each program includes eight 30-minute online lessons plus homework assignments in between. Users watch online videos, write journal entries and complete exercises that help them identify problems and develop coping strategies.
Beyond the digital content, Cook said, people can ask questions of a trained psychologist via text, e-mail or phone. Most people complete the program within 10 weeks, Cook said, but it’s self-paced.
As more individuals started using the program, Learn to Live started reaching out to organizational partners such as employers, insurers and health care providers.
An employer might provide access to the online program as part of an employee wellness program, Cook said, or an insurer might include Learn to Live as a covered benefit. A psychology practice might direct patients to the program as an adjunct to therapy. A college or university can make the program available to students — Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., for example, gave students a code that gets them free entry to the program.
“The number of organizational clients that we have is growing by 50 percent year over year,” Cook said, while acknowledging the track record is short, only in its second year.
Some companies offer resources to workers by way of employee assistance programs, Cook said, but have been frustrated by low takeup rates. They’re willing to give Learn to Live a try, he said, because the investment is “pretty modest.”
“Employers can see how mental health problems are driving up costs or driving down productivity or [contributing to] disability claims costs,” he said. “They see these problems, but they don’t see a corresponding use or utilization of current solutions.”
Cook added: “The effectiveness of digital health interventions like online therapy are becoming much more well known.”
Some anxiety sufferers use social media as their primary communication channel, Cook said, so Learn to Live has developed outreach methods that work in the online world.
Inspirational and informational messages sometimes work in capturing the attention of people seeking help online with mental health issues, he said. But the company has found that sardonic humor often works to engage sufferers.
“We have a lot of learnings about how to relate to people who are suffering. … It’s not always very intuitive.”