SA startup launches mental health support app

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South African startup Panda has launched a mental health support app that gives users access to online tools, activities, and support to help them manage.

Panda is the work of Alon Lits, former GM and director at Uber South Africa, and mental health expert and clinical psychologist Allan Sweidan, who co-founded the Akeso Group of Psychiatric Hospitals.

The pair have joined forces to develop the Panda app, which provides users with access to mental health support and resources. Features include the Bamboo Forest, where Panda users can engage with peers who are going through the same issues as them in a safe, anonymous, audio-only environment; a chat support where users can connect with registered counsellors; life skills content; and screening assessments.

An additional forthcoming feature will allow users to connect with a mental health expert and make appointments, pay, and consult through the app. 

“I have always been interested in the challenge of making mental health care more accessible. In my previous life, as a founder and CEO of Akeso, we built seven new psychiatric hospitals in a period of about seven years, in areas where there was no access to inpatient care. But still today, more than 75 per cent of people who experience mental health problems have no access to care at all. And even where there might be the availability of care, people don’t know what kind of care they need or who to contact when they feel overwhelmed,” Sweidan told Disrupt Africa.

“On top of that, there is a stigma attached to asking for help with one’s mental health or mental wellness. When I met Alon, I realised that together we could create something very powerful, an app that provides different levels of mental health care and support, that scales well, and can offer access to first-line, primary mental health care.” 

The Panda app serves as a triage system for people with psycho-social issues. Users sign in anonymously, and almost all the care they receive on the app is anonymised, meaning there is significantly less fear of stigma or being identified by peers.

“Mental health is a pandemic and we believe that there has to be a way to leverage technology and communities to make mental health support and care more accessible,” Lits said. 

“In my time with Uber, I had first-hand experience of the massively positive impact technology can have on an industry, the economy, and most importantly, on the lives of individuals and families, and I am confident that Panda has the potential to deliver the same positive impacts, on the mental health industry as a whole and in the lives of millions of people experiencing mental health challenges.”

Self-funded thus far, Panda reports a “steady stream of downloads” since launch, and positive initial feedback from users. The startup said it has aspirations to build a global company which will contend with the leading players in the mental health-tech space.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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