If there is one thing the Movement Control Order (MCO) has taught us about mental health, it is that we do not give it enough importance. The general anxiety brought on by the situation globally, the rising cases in our community and ensuring our loved ones are safe is a lot for people to handle, over and above the daily stresses of life. Numerous studies have proven the direct relationship between physical and mental health, so we can no longer think that we can just shrug off our emotional stress or assume “we can get over it”.
Madiha Fuad was reminded of this harsh reality during the MCO. A major change to her PhD course turned into a particularly stressful incident, which resulted in nerve damage in her back — an injury that eventually led to winged scapula, a skeletal medical condition in which a person’s shoulder blade protrudes from his or her back.
Because of the MCO, Madiha could not get it treated properly. As she tried to deal with the physical pain and the resulting immobility, she sank into depression. “I couldn’t do much at all, couldn’t see people — it was so depressing,” she recalls. “I resorted to reading all sorts of motivational articles to uplift myself, and when it worked, I realised I was on to something.”
Keen to put the forced downtime to good use, Madiha reviewed her experience and realised that Malaysians needed mental health support that could be accessed easily and anonymously — like it or not, the topic is still taboo and, for cultural reasons, not widely discussed. This was the impetus for her to create PlusVibes, a platform that integrates mental health associations, volunteer listeners and campaigners to encourage self-development and motivation.
During the planning stage for PlusVibes, Madiha noticed that more people had issues with the state of their mental health than is commonly perceived — but most are reluctant to talk about it. “Whether it is individuals or organisations, it’s a topic we shy away from as we are afraid of the negative perception associated with it. But this platform, which is anchored in motivation and support, breaks down the barriers a little and gets users to access the help they need.
“To develop the app, we looked at what was already available out there — Headspace and Calm are two good examples — and adapted it to suit local content and partners. It is in English right now, although we will have content in other languages in the future. The app is really inspired by what I needed most when I was stuck at home, which was support and someone to talk to. The option of going to a therapist for an hour every week simply isn’t something that is accessible to a lot of people, which is also why PlusVibes is completely free.”
The app, available on both the Apple and Android operating systems, is simple to use. It begins with a quick assessment of the various aspects of your life — romantic relationships, financial status, social interactions and family life. Depending on the problem you want to address, you can then opt to speak to a counsellor or access a wide range of information in the form of curated articles and videos. But developing content in this space is difficult, labour-intensive and requires a great deal of research. What Madiha has done is to link the app to existing resources that have a proven track record — meditation sites, yoga videos, even Zumba exercises.
In the Exploration section, there are additional resources relating to family, finances, physical health, leadership, self-love and so on, while the Talk to Someone section connects you to a person you can chat with, for free, and anonymously. In terms of target market, PlusVibes seeks to help those whose needs are not yet urgent, and who just need some motivation and support at a low point in their lives.
For all that PlusVibes can do, Madiha is very clear on what it cannot. “We aren’t a medical or clinical app and we don’t direct anyone to medical professionals — we are more of a motivational and support platform,” she states. “We connect people to NGOs [non-governmental organisations] who are already providing counselling services by giving them a wider reach, and introduce our users to the first line of help when it comes to seeking mental health support. After a chat with a counsellor, you may realise that was all you needed, or you can choose to pursue something more serious offline.”
In creating the app, Madiha and her team of eight — which includes web developers and business development managers — made it as easy as possible to use while incorporating elements that are already available in other successful apps. The content was selected by the team members, who pick out articles and videos based on the various categories. “It’s a lot like Flipboard, but for mental health support,” she says, referring to the news and social network aggregation company.
PlusVibes is currently self-funded with some help from a few angel investors, but Madiha has plans to monetise the app in the future. “We aren’t a social enterprise or an NGO, but we aren’t your traditional money-making start-up either. To start off, we have partnered those who are providing their counselling services for free — we aren’t very cash-reliant, which is good. Honestly, we are attracting investors even now but we want to make it free for users, so we are trying to work out what sort of business model would be best for things to stay that way.”
PlusVibes has registered 380 active users ahead of its Oct 17 launch, and the feedback has generally been positive, with high marks given for the anonymity factor, and the availability of 24-hour help. The latter also means that Malaysians who are abroad, or pretty much anyone who prefers this non-intrusive approach, can access this platform. Madiha’s challenge now is marketing and getting word out on the platform as having a bigger number of users will enable them to create more guided, curated content.
“The plan is to go regional,” she says. “It’s a mobile app, so you can access it from anywhere. We want to first target countries with high-pressure work environments, and we will be partnering local NGOs. That’s where the bulk of the funds that we get from our investors at that point will be channelled towards — creating more languages for the platform, and funding on-site teams to generate content. Right now, the focus is building a solid base and getting more people to use it so we can refine and perfect the user experience.”
There is not much competition for PlusVibes currently. According to Madiha’s research, two similar apps were launched a few years ago but these were not sustainable as the cost for users and providers was prohibitive. Similarly, from a regional and global perspective, there are not many platforms that bring users and content together like PlusVibes does, the exception being a website in Singapore. “But we are an app, and that’s important because it means we are accessible anytime, anywhere,” she points out.
US-based mental health-related apps have historically been very successful, requiring as little as US$10 for early stage diagnoses. However, it is a mature market where mental health is not a taboo topic. PlusVibe’s less intrusive approach is a better fit in a community that is only now beginning to accept the idea of mental health support in a more comprehensive way.
In Malaysia, mental health falls under the purview of the Ministry of Health, which is at present focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent spike in cases. It is up to the community to offer support where they can to those who need it most, rather than rely on a healthcare system that is much stretched right now. Solutions like PlusVibes make it easy to do so. And that’s definitely a plus in these trying times.
This article first appeared on Oct 12, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.