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The Future of Mental Health

The Future is Now for an App That Offers On-the-Spot Mental Health Assessment

By Andy Maynard

llipsis Health, which leverages your smartphone to help you understand your emotional health anytime, anywhere, might seem like something out of a TV show set in the distant future. However, no wires or sensors are required. The app uses the power of your voice to quantify depression and anxiety symptoms based on your answers to a few questions and provides recommendations for managing mental health conditions. For Marie Hurabiell L’96, an early investor and member of the founding team and the board of directors for Ellipsis Health, which was founded by her fiancé Mainul Mondal and Michael Aratow, MD, this technology is not out of another reality — it is happening right now.

Ellipsis Health began in 2017 with the idea of employing a new diabetes treatment. Soon after the company grew into something different altogether: a method to diagnose and treat mental illness through the use of artificial intelligence technology.

“The idea of the company is that we are the vital sign for mental health,” Hurabiell said. “A way to screen, measure, and monitor your mental health in a way that is analogous to how you would measure blood pressure or temperature.”

For Mondal, the key was the realization that measuring emotional health could be done via speech analysis. “Speech is everywhere,” he says. “What Ellipsis Health’s algorithms do is, they look at how someone speaks, what they say, and in about a minute and a half to two minutes, they can say, ‘you, or your child, you are at this level of depression, this level of anxiety. And here are some of the things you can do about it’.”

The app examines not only what a person says but how they say it and compares the results to a vast database of previously recorded samples. Then, the app provides a measurement of the user’s current mental health state and options for treatment — everything from recommending articles to read, to scheduling a session with a therapist, and in dire cases, to contacting a crisis call center.

Hurabiell did not start out trying to revolutionize mental health care. In fact, she did not have a specialty when she graduated from the Law School. She began her legal career as a “baby lawyer” at Skadden in California, where she worked in many different areas of the law, including corporate and litigation. Afterward, she worked in business development for a few companies and then found herself in the startup business.

“Serendipitously, I started my own company, my own small law firm … which morphed into getting involved with different startups,” Hurabiell said. “Mainul has always had an interest in healthcare and health technology. He started the first generation of Ellipsis [Health], and then I joined, and we morphed it into the company that it is now.”

That transformation took place after a rise in suicides among college students. “That’s when I turned to him. We had just started building the algorithms and modeling everything, collecting data,” Hurabiell said. “I turned to him and said, ‘oh my god, we have to do this today,’ like we have to have this done immediately because this is going to be so important for schools.”

Ellipsis Health is not designed to replace therapists, but rather to help them do their jobs more effectively and reach more people in need of care. “This is about the multiplier effect — helping one therapist do the work of three or even five therapists,” Mondal said. “Our technology can help them understand how someone is feeling while they are at the point of care.”

By partnering with Ellipsis Health, mental health professionals can focus more on listening to what patients are actually saying, while the app listens for aspects in their speech and voice. “From the feedback we’ve gotten from various sources, we have found that doctors feel like they can pay attention to their clients instead of sitting there, constantly writing, and making sure they don’t miss anything,” added Hurabiell. “Now they can be human with their patients.”

In addition to being an effective clinical decision support tool for clinicians, the app is also designed to empower patients. Now, people can monitor their own emotional well-being between appointments, and medical professionals receive insight into how their patients are doing outside of sessions and can identify individuals who may be at higher risk for a mental health emergency. Hurabiell hopes that Ellipsis Health can expedite mental health diagnoses. “On average, it takes eleven years from the first sign of someone having a mental health concern to being treated,” Hurabiell said. “That is totally unacceptable.”

Not only has current technology made Ellipsis Health’s app possible, but current events have accelerated the need for its adoption. The pandemic has worsened the already critical mental health crisis and virtual care has become essential for healthcare delivery.

Hurabiell said the act alone of talking to the app can be “therapeutic,” mimicking in some ways the benefits of talking to a therapist. “For people who are in an early stage, or maybe in a low-grade situation, they are finding it to be therapeutic to answer these questions. While this therapeutic effect is not the sole purpose of the app, it has been wonderful to see.”

Hurabiell and Mondal both hope Ellipsis can contribute to dramatic improvements in ensuring everyone has access to mental health professionals and treatment.

“It is important that we see a drastic reduction in the time it takes for someone who has a mental health issue, from identification and getting treatment,” Hurabiell said, noting that this could lead to “a significant reduction in the number of suicides (and) a significant reduction in the number of mental health conditions.” Which, for her, is a future that cannot come soon enough.

Andy Maynard is an historian and a member of the Development and Alumni Relations Office at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.