It’s unclear how many psychiatrists, therapists and psychologists are working in China. There are 125.2 total mental health workers per every 100,000 people in the United States, but the same statistic is not reported for China in the World Health Organization’s 2014 Mental Health Atlas.
Mental health care can be a sensitive subject in China, as an NPR story from last August puts it, the mentally ill are virtually invisible in Chinese society. From a young age on, Chinese are under extreme pressure to study hard, secure decent jobs and complete the “Circle of Life” by starting a family. If one follows this formula, there is not much room for failure, and ailments like anxiety and depression can go unaddressed for fear it will be a sign of weakness.
A Taiwanese startup with no video production skills honed this message clearly in a video they produced at a 48-hour video production marathon, organized by Beijing Tech Hive, in Beijing this March. Their first video was meant to spread awareness about mental health.
The concept of providing resources for mental health care among the Chinese-speaking community began to bubble last summer in Taipei, Taiwan. Two gentlemen — one had a corporate job and the other worked in a social venture — met at a startup event. They found they had both suffered from mental health issues while facing the stresses of graduate school and working in the U.S. They saw an opportunity to fill a hole in the market by providing a service to Chinese speakers globally.
From inception to reality
KaJin Health was born. It’s a platform that provides online counselling between patients and therapists. All the sessions are conducted in Mandarin. One way to translate “Kajin” in Japanese is family. But the name of the startup actually came from a combination of the founders’ names.
“We only had a landing page [of a website] in September about what we do, how we do it and who we are,” Jin Hsueh, co-founder and head of product at KaJin Health, said. “But we had people asking us how they can talk to a therapist online.”
There were hiccups initially to get therapists on board. Currently, there are no laws in Taiwan to regulate online counselling to protect the privacy of patients and the ethical liability of therapists, Hsueh said.
“Some therapists are afraid that the patients might take certain actions [that may cause self-harm],” Wilson Kao, co-founder and head of business development of KaJin health, said. “They are afraid of getting sued.”
Kao, who is 31 years old, said they hired a lawyer to draft agreements to protect the therapists from lawsuits. Hsueh said the legal documents also remind the patients that they should immediately go to a doctor, instead of using the service of KaJin Health, if they have suicidal thoughts.
Kao and Hsueh said the U.S. has a more mature regulatory system. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed by Congress in 1996. One of the mandates of the act is to protect the confidentiality of health records.
“We are trying to comply with HIPAA standards,” said the 28-year-old Hsueh.
The six-month milestone
The platform of KaJin Health is now running about 40 sessions each month, Kao said. The team has seen a gradual growth in the business: 10 sessions last October bumped up to 30 sessions by December.
The team explains the steady growth is because an average user has about three to five sessions during a course of treatment. They said one user from Singapore has signed up for 18 sessions so far. They also said there is about a 65% user-retention rate.
The co-founders said their users are receiving online counselling from Singapore, Malaysia, the U.S., the UK, France and Italy, besides Taiwan.
There are now 25 Taiwanese-licensed therapists providing counselling on the platform. Through word-of-mouth, the co-founders said it’s easy to find therapists in Taiwan. They said the circle of mental health care workers in Taiwan is small because they all know each other. They can vouch for each other’s quality and professionalism.
Kao said they rely on senior therapists to vet the therapist candidates before joining the platform.
The five-member team of KaJin Health is part of the ninth batch of participants in Chinaccelerator, which is a three-month startup accelerator based in Shanghai. The team joined Chinaccelerator because they want to tap the market in China. They said the mental health care system in China has not matured yet.
KaJin Health’s direct competitor in China is Jiandan Xinli, which has been operating for almost two years. It is headquartered in Beijing. The platform raised an undisclosed amount of Series A funding from VC firm NEA last November. The startup also received an undisclosed amount of angel investment from ZhenFund and China Growth Capital in April 2014, according to industry website ITJuzi.
Besides providing online counselling, Jiandan Xinli also facilitates a marketplace for different psychotherapy training courses.
KaJin Health hopes to build a community in different cities in the future. The startup held a movie night in Taipei previously with a senior therapist present for a forum afterward. They showed the 1997 blockbuster Good Will Hunting, which features Matt Damon as a gifted but unrecognized mathematician. The film showed how Damon found new direction in life through therapy sessions.
The team also organized a workshop in Taipei, led by a therapist, on interpersonal skills for women in the workforce.
Although the workshop may not seem like it’s directly related to psychology, Hsueh said psychology is everywhere. He said they organize many events addressing how to interact with other people because they want to blend psychology into people’s lives.
“That’s why we have so many events that are a part of daily life, instead of using so many health care terms or too-serious kinds of scenarios,” Hsueh said.