Alumni Stories – Clearhead

The neglected mental health of New Zealand can no longer be ignored. We are in crisis. The New Zealand government announced $1.9 billion in funding in its Wellbeing Budget. But could a contributing factor to New Zealand’s metal wellbeing come from an innovative grassroots organisation?

Angela Lim is the co-founder and CEO of Clearhead – a free, online mental health platform that utilises AI chatbot technology to mimic a GP consult, referring users to an appropriate next step in their quest to improve mental wellness. It is New Zealand’s first AI-driven diagnostic and triage tool for mental health.

As well as being an experienced healthcare practitioner, Angela is a serial entrepreneur. She started her first venture as a medical student while participating in the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Velocity programme in 2015 and participated in our Startup School in 2018. Clearhead is her latest venture.

Angela was inspired to create Clearhead as she has been at the coalface of healthcare in New Zealand as a practising doctor and was frustrated to hear colleagues express helplessness at the lack of resource available to deal with patients. “I’ve had GPs say that they’ve had patients confide in them that they feel like killing themselves, and they’re not able to make the appropriate referrals because they know that they would just be rejected”.

One in six New Zealand adults have been diagnosed with a common mental health disorder at some time in their lives. This includes bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders and depression.

Mental health is often neglected as when unwell, the symptoms are invisible and therefore easy to ignore. The impact is terrible, affecting not only individuals but entire families and communities. In the Wellbeing Budget under the line item of ‘Taking Mental Health Seriously’ funding has been attributed to ‘Suicide Prevention Services’ and ‘Tackling Homelessness’, which says a lot.

Angela has more to say about the issue. “New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the world but what really drives home the seriousness of this is that the second highest youth suicide rate is 8 times less than New Zealand’s. The government should be applauded for clearly signalling that this is a priority but the challenge will be around how that is implemented. When you look at the target of providing access to mental healthcare to 325,000 people by 2023 and the projections for how many people will actually need care then – that just doesn’t cut the mustard. We need to be bold enough to invest in things that are scalable and cost effective”.

Clearhead aims to address a number of barriers to mental health provision. Firstly, allowing a platform that people can discreetly use if they need to build up the courage to ask for help. Secondly, it steers people away from using Dr Google, which can be harmful.

The technology asks the ‘patient’ a series of questions which can be done at home in their own time without being rushed. It then collates the information and the report can be shown by the person using the tool to their GP to assist with understanding the patient’s issues. Clearhead also acts in the manner of Airbnb by showing available therapists in the area. And it gives the user tools to track their progress and remind them to engage in healthy behaviour such as exercise. Clearhead is suited to people at the mild to moderate end of the spectrum, who don’t yet need full wraparound, intensive support. It comes from the approach that prevention is better than being ‘the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’.

Angela has gained valuable experience through sitting on multiple governance boards for health IT projects being rolled out nationally. She has insight into both what is possible and what the barriers are to success, such as institutional conventions.

Angela says that those aspiring to entrepreneurship shouldn’t underestimate how difficult a path it is. “The last ten years have been about gaining experience and knowledge in skills like how to network and how to lead a team”.

In the first 24 hours of launching, Clearhead had 100 users sign up and they organically get 1,300 unique visitors to their site every month. Backed by a Swiss investor, the team have global ambitions. Angela left her role at Starship in September 2018 to lead Clearhead fulltime and is excited to see what the future holds.

“If I can ensure that even one person is able to get the help needed to prevent an unnecessary loss, that’s success enough for me”.

The Spinoff – The AI chatbot app helping people get the mental health services they need

Radio NZ – Angela Lim: doctor and tech entrepreneur