Many health experts are worried that the kids are not alright. The pandemic response has severed children from school and, for many, their support system. A lot of kids rely on school for food, mentorship, mental healthcare, and the stability that a daily routine can bring. To reach children that are having a hard time coping and those who may be suffering more long-term issues, a company called Brightline is launching a behavioral health platform for kids in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The platform connects kids with psychiatrists, therapists, and coaches who can provide one-on-one tele-therapy. For now, the online therapy sessions are only available for kids ages 6 to 10, though the company plans to include kids up to age 12 soon. Kids as young as 3 years old can take part in guided tele-therapy sessions with their parents. The app will also host group classes for parents and kids of all ages and provide planning tools, at-home exercises, and a way to track a kid’s progress. Next year, the company plans to roll out specific programs for teens. Brightline is waving its monthly membership fee during the pandemic, so parents will only pay for sessions with healthcare professionals.
The stress that COVID-19 has put on families led Brightline to launch this digital platform earlier than previously planned. One of the many repercussions of COVID-19 is that a lot of children are stuck at home all the time. For some children, this new reality is exacerbating issues that existed, but were perhaps less visible, before the lockdown. Being cloistered away from friends, family, and teachers may also be especially difficult for kids who were already diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, or depression.
“If you were feeling things before, if you were struggling before, if you had an addiction or an eating disorder or anxiety or depression or a bad relationship, those things just became a lot harder. And even if you were perfect before, you are not perfect now,” Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Textline, a digital helpline for people in need of immediate emotional and sometimes physical support, told Fast Company in May. Under the COVID-19 lockdowns, she said, her platform saw a 78% increase in domestic violence texts and a 44% increase in sexual abuse texts.
Even in good times, pediatric mental health services are not widely available. A map from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry shows that 41 states and Puerto Rico have a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists, with only one to 17 practitioners per 100,000 patients. The group published a study at the end of 2019 highlighting the uneven distribution of child psychiatry services: For instance, child psychiatrists are disproportionately likely to work in high-income counties and minority children are frequently underserved. In lieu of a robust jump in providers, AACAP has been advocating for states to pass laws that would enable tele-psychiatry and mandate insurers to cover the cost. Part of the reason for this uneven distribution of care is because child psychiatrists, pediatric psychologists, and occupational therapists are independent operators.
“The industry of pediatric behavioral health is still a bunch of individual, I would say, kind of old-school clinicians, whether that’s psychiatrist, psychologist, occupational therapist, speech, language pathologists, practicing kind of one-to-one care in very traditional ways, using paper-based records,” says cofounder and CEO Naomi Allen. She’s hoping to update that experience and incorporate mobile apps to help parents work with their kids at home.
Allen previously ran growth at Livongo, a mobile app and medical device company that treats multiple chronic health conditions like diabetes. She was inspired by the company’s ability to bring cognitive behavioral therapy online and measure patient outcomes. She wants to do something similar at Brightline. Each patient will have a digital record to help their healthcare providers coordinate care. This record will also record a patient’s progress, tracking what works, what doesn’t, and whether a patient is getting better. Allen says that ultimately the company’s ability to demonstrate patient outcomes with hard numbers will help the company attract insurers down the road.
Not all aspects of behavioral health can be handled online. Some assessments will need to be done in person. Brightline will also have physical offices, the first of which Allen hopes to open in October.