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Entering Digital-First Therapy

An Interview with BEACON founder, Sam Duboc

— January 31, 2020 — Business
Modern consumers can often feel overwhelmed in their lives due to various factors — from troubles in the work environment to personal trauma. Campaigns like Bell Let's Talk enable individuals to be open about how they are feeling and have the potential to facilitate a lot of healthy conversations, breaking the stigma around mental health. Therapy, however, has become largely inaccessible both in metropolitan cities, as well as in rural areas. The BEACON guided digital therapy service is created as a solution to this.

Operating from coast-to-coast in Canada, BEACON provides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in a way that is customized and effective. With a healthy mix of technology and a human touch, the service is digital-first, ensuring that there are no long waitlists and users can access support whenever they need it and from anywhere.

Trend Hunter spoke with the founder of BEACON, Sam Duboc, about how the platform was formed, how it operates, and how campaigns like Bell Let's Talk can make a difference.

Can you tell us about how BEACON came to be?

I am a serial entrepreneur, with Air Miles and a few other businesses as part of my portfolio. Back in 2011, I dealt with depression and the idea for BEACON came thereafter. My wife, Claire, and I used our expertise and experience to develop a platform that brings effective and evidence-based mental health care that is accessible and affordable for everybody.

When I look back at my life, I can identify periods of downs and lows throughout it and that is something many can relate to. For me, there were various trigger points and the main one was when my brother passed away. I really dropped off the map for a little bit there. I grew up in the Midwest United States, where no one likes to talk about, or will admit to suffering from, depression, especially back in those days. At a certain point, I had to acknowledge that it was a problem and I decided to seek help. The fact that I was on the board of the CAMH Foundation and was educated in mental health gave me a head-start. I was one of those rare birds that knew exactly what they wanted. My brother also suffered from depression, so I kind of had a sense of what drugs worked for him and what drugs didn't, which certainly informed the approach to my treatment. Even with all these resources, it was still really difficult to find the help that I needed -- it was hard to find the right person, to know who to call, to get access to something. At the end of the day, I knew that the services could help, but it took me a long time to find the right evidence-based and effective healthcare solution for me.

Claire called my attention to the fact that if it was this hard for us to find support, then it surely was much more difficult for people who had less access to the resources that they needed. That was the turning point. It was 2012 when we decided to do something about it. It took us about two years to find the right partners to build a business with. Initially, we teamed up with two psychologists to build a few clinics across the country, but that didn't solve the problem. In Toronto, you'd be put on a nine-month waitlist to get into group therapy, because the demand is high. That is in a relatively accessible metropolitan city! For the more remote areas of Canada, this problem is magnified -- you'd have to drive three hours out or more to seek the help you needed.

The numbers keep staggering because more and more people seek help. So, Claire and I thought that if we were aiming to solve this problem, it wasn't going to happen with a brick-and-mortar business model. We were going to have to do it digitally. We did a ton of research around the world, we consulted experts in digital therapy here in Canada, in the United Kingdom, and Australia. And all this led to the formation of BEACON, which was first used to enhance the quality of therapy in our clinics, then rolled out and made available broadly to Canadians in 2017.

What would you identify as some of the main factors that contribute to depression today?

Our clients, in our clinics and online, have helped us identify four main factors. One of them is that life, generally speaking, is far less predictable than it was 50 years ago. The pace of change is rapid and opportunities come at you from all directions. People are doing so many things now that stress levels are bound to go up, which can lead to depression or anxiety. The second thing is that people are less connected socially. That does not entail social media networks, because everyone is super-connected in these environments, but in-person connection -- the downtime spent in a group setting with friends and family. The third thing that our clients tell us is that they are simply overwhelmed. Some describe it as drinking from a firehose that they just can't get a grasp on. Finally, we as a society lack some skills of resiliency and acceptance of failure. This is one of the things that are on the radar of institutions. I am aware that some schools want to bring back resiliency training and stress training. Claire and I are huge fans of this. In schools, we teach arithmetic, we teach English, we teach French, we need to teach stress management. When we started the business a few years ago, we wrote down a number of goals and one of the final ones was that we wanted to see BEACON be incorporated as a class in every high school in Canada. That is our Blue Sky Idea and we keep that as our end goal.

Technology is often billed as being alienating. How does BEACON harness tech to deliver digital therapy that works and could you give us a rundown of the process?

BEACON is a service that is informed by cognitive behavioral therapy. What we aim to do is to support people through their journey and teach them the skills that will help them help themselves.

Here is how it works: if you are an individual, you visit MindBeacon.com and if your employer provides the service, you can access it through their website without payment. You take a very comprehensive online assessment, which documents a detailed overview of what is troubling you. We use only validated measures and evidence-based tools to figure out how we can best help you. This part is very important because the first step on the path to recovery is understanding exactly where you are. If you don't, then you don't know where to go. Once you've finished this part, our platform processes and compiles the overview, which will be reviewed by a mental healthcare professional who confirms or potentially adjusts what the system is suggesting.

At this point, we on-board you and assign you a therapist, who is an accredited professional and who sticks with you throughout your journey. We have multiple protocols within the platform and your assigned therapist will on-board you to the one that fits your symptoms. So, if your primary concern is depression, you will be on a depression protocol. Unique to us, however, is that we measure how you are doing every week and every four weeks we do a thorough battery of measures to make sure we are still on track. We continuously track and customize the protocol to fit your experience. If you've exhibited some anxiety during your journey, next time you visit our platform, you will see activities to help with anxiety. If you tell us that you have to talk to your boss about something and are nervous about it, we will loop you in content on how to integrate oneself into the workplace, how to have effective discussions at work, and so on. If you start to develop panic attacks, you will get support on that too. In fact, 91% of the people who go through our service go through a uniquely customized pathway. The personalization is important as no mental health condition manifests itself in the exact same way in everyone.

And this makes a difference. Four in five people using our service experience improvement in their symptoms, which is consistent with results from evidence-based face-to-face therapy and with results from medication. We are based in Canada and operate coast-to-coast, we've treated people from 107 different countries of origin. Over 52% of those people have come to BEACON after they've already experienced some other mental healthcare treatment.

In addition, our service is time-saving and 100% private, meaning that you don't have to tell people what you're going though ever or until you are comfortable talking about it. You get the treatment wherever and whenever you want it, without being on a waitlist.

How do you connect with clients?

Well, our satisfaction scores are in the 90s and we are very adamant about keeping it that way. We are a relatively new service and we keep growing. Our users offer us a lot of great feedback and we love it. As a company, we review an anonymized 'The Voice of the Client' report every week. Through it, we identify any key issues and what people have expressed would make their experience better. We make sure that as a company, we remain very transparent about the things our clients like and don't like about the service. We incorporate this feedback to be better and more effective.

How does an initiative like 'Bell Let's Talk' make a difference?

I think it is great for the country. There is an explosion in demand for mental health as depression and anxiety become more prevalent today. But another reason here is a historic one -- people have actually started to open up to their condition, when they used to stay silent and 'suck it up.' Bell Let's Talk is making it easier and safer for individuals to come forward and talk about it. You can't get on the road to recovery until you acknowledge you have a problem.

The other thing that Bell has done -- and a number of studies have been published on this, is that they have shown the leadership as an employer to our governments and other policy-makers that it actually makes business sense to be proactive in providing options for effective mental healthcare. That is, they have put mental health in an economic context that persuades employers to do something that will benefit everybody. It is a win-win situation.
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