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50 Businesses, 50 Solutions: Hanover start-up meets pandemic mental-health needs through messaging

  • Bill J. Hudenko, Ph.D. President, Trusst Health Inc (courtesy photo)

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/28/2020 8:55:52 AM

As a licensed psychologist and researcher at Dartmouth College, Bill Hudenko knows the importance of — and the barriers to — providing convenient, accessible mental health care. He noticed that the mental health field was moving toward text messaging-based counseling services, but saw there was an alarming lack of research about the efficiency of these programs.

So Hudenko, along with a team of researchers, set out to discover whether messaging-based interventions were effective for people with mental illness. In a randomized-controlled study, the researchers found that messaging clinicians could improve outcomes for people with mental illness, even reducing severe symptoms like psychosis.

“That was the moment for me when I realized we’ve got something tremendous that could change the national discussion about mental health treatment,” Hudenko said.

Last fall, Hudenko launched Trusst, a messaging-based app that allows people to connect with a licensed therapist within 24 hours. The app uses the same guidelines that Hudenko showed were effective in his research, and makes finding mental health treatment convenient and affordable, Hudenko said.

When the pandemic hit, Hudenko was focused on growing Trusst, getting more users and clinicians onto the service. The biggest challenge was getting people to give it a try: the cost of acquiring a new customer was about $150 for similar apps. At that rate, marketing expenses were a huge portion of the start-up’s budget.

Then, colleges and other institutions began closing down, transitioning to remote services for everything from classes to mental health care. Hudenko recognized an opportunity for Trusst, which was already being offered free of charge to all Dartmouth students through a partnership with a fraternity on campus.

“We all of a sudden had a product with great demand,” Hudenko said. “Instantly, institutions were trying to solve really big problems that happen to be right in our wheelhouse.”

The team at Trusst reached out to the University of Washington in Seattle, an area that was hard-hit by coronavirus early on. Trusst trained all the university’s clinicians to use the app to deliver care.

Since then, Hudenko has focused on bringing Trusst directly to employers and universities, which provide the service to their communities as a benefit. Organizations can license the software for their existing clinicians to use, or tap into Trusst’s network of clinicians.

“The pandemic really is what accelerated our shift and focus to this being a good match for colleges and employers,” he said. In addition to the University of Washington, Trusst is now used by King Arthur Flour and other organizations. Companies are interested in offering the platform not just to employees, but to family members as well, Hudenko said.

Trusst is a direct-pay service that doesn’t take insurance. Individuals pay $199 a month for the service, if it’s not provided to them through an organization. The app fills an important gap in the health benefits that many organizations offer, Hudenko said. While most insurance companies cover mental health care, Trusst allows people to access clinicians without taking time out of their work week, something that’s appealing to employers. Although there’s currently no insurance reimbursement for messaging-based services, Hudenko said “the writing is on the wall for that” — the increasing acceptance of tele-health brought about by the pandemic is a huge step in the right direction, he said.

Now, Trusst is raising additional capital to continue expanding. With stress and anxiety spiking during the pandemic, there’s likely to be an increased demand for mental health services, and Hudenko believes that Trusst can be an important tool for meeting that need.

“One of the things that is a catalysis for our team is the importance of the space that we’re in right now,” he said.

This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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