Authored by Miri Polachek, CEO of Joy Ventures
The conversation around mental health has historically excluded the athletic community. While physical injuries have long been managed with rigorous services and teams of trained professionals, and can often garner intense public interest, both sports’ governing bodies and the media have rarely paid attention to the mental wellbeing of athletes and the crushing pressure and burden of expectations they face. But, the outpouring from Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps, some of the most decorated athletes, made mental health a defining theme of this past month’s Tokyo Olympics and helped to erode a stigma that has too-long reigned over and silenced the athletic community.
The exact percentage of elite athletes with mental health concerns is not clear, however if we look at the general percentages of those dealing with mental illness, the numbers range from 40% to 50% of the world population. Add to that the pandemic and the fact that many of these athletes are teenagers or young adults and the percentages could reach up to 70%.
As more athletes come forward and share their struggles, we are finally starting to see a wind of change blowing through the world of sports and outside of it, presenting us with a unique opportunity beyond raising awareness: an opportunity for players from both the private and public sectors to innovate to better serve the mental health needs of people across the world.
From awareness to solutions: How technology can help us stay mentally fit
In Israel, the pace of mental health and wellness innovation has been steadily increasing over the last couple of years, and there are a growing number of startups developing technologies that hold the potential to transform our wellbeing by empowering individuals to better understand, monitor and regulate their feelings.
These four companies offer an inspiring look at what’s possible:
Founded in 2018, Reflect Innovation has developed a soft-textile wrapped device called the Reflect Orb, which uses biofeedback to take users on a journey to relaxation by giving them real-time feedback on their emotional state. The Orb measures and analyzes users’ stress through their fingers by tracking changes in physiological signals, and displays users’ emotional state in real-time through changing LED lights. The result is a calming experience that also provides insight into the user’s physical, mental, and emotional state.
Myndlift is a hybrid software/wearable solution that uses brain-sensing technology (headset) and therapist-guided programs (app) to offer digital mental health services. The tool combines EEG technology with an established method called neurofeedback, which is often used in a clinical setting to teach self-regulation of brain functions; and is now available as a consumer product with Myndlift.
Launched in 2019, Calmigo aims to provide a calming companion for people who regularly struggle with stress and anxiety. The company has developed a hand-held, patent-pending device with a quad-sensory user experience that leverages relaxing scents and technology to provide both immediate relief in moments of distress and long-term effectiveness. It’s small enough to carry in your purse and it can be used anywhere and anytime.
GrayMatters Health is a cutting-edge startup that emerged as a spin-off from Tel Aviv University and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in Israel. The company is developing highly innovative, non-invasive digital therapeutics that go beyond the pill for a broad spectrum ofmental health disorders. The company's most recent accomplishment was being chosen as one of the final eight companies for The Spinoff Prize 2021 by Nature, a competition which judges companies formed to exploit innovative deep-technologies stemming from academic research.
A game-changing moment for mental wellbeing
Biles’ brave decision and that of past athletes who have walked the same path, are accelerating a powerful movement in the way mental health is discussed in the public sphere, and are exposing an enormous need for organizations and governments to address these issues. Today, technology plays a central role in our lives, but we have only just started to harness its potential to improve mental wellbeing. Innovative companies and cutting-edge startups have a vital role to play in developing this field, as do science and research. But to truly move the needle for wellbeing, we need an ecosystem of leaders from both our public and private sectors working together on treatments, supports and innovations that can be implemented and made accessible in the near future. Simone Biles has helped to ignite what could be a game-changing moment for mental health progress, and now it’s up to us to keep the flame burning.