As written by our co-founder Robin van Dalen.
Edited by Dixon Chibanda and Sarah Florander.
The Story of Inuka.
A Personal Perspective, by co-founder Robin van Dalen.
Welcome to Inuka!
So I hear those of you not familiar with Kiswahili thinking: what is Inuka?
It is an East-African word for ‘arise’.
And, it is also our platform where we connect people in mental distress with a personal, trained guide – all via anonymous chat!
Why? We know that more than 1 in 5 people in the world experiences depressive and anxious complaints to such an extent they affect how they take care of themselves, their jobs and their families. Yet, more than 50% in high income and 90% in low income countries never seeks any support. We aim to make it easier for people to find support by offering support from personal guides who are trained a proven method and deliver the support via confidential chat.
Sounds strange? The scientific evidence underlying this methodology is very strong; the method has been proved in large scale scientific trials, and we know therapy via chat can be as effective as face to face therapy. But we also tested it ourselves: in a first larger pilot we saw that for over 90% of the people who participated, already after 4 sessions mental distress symptoms such as poor sleep, worrying a lot and losing joy in live decreased by more than half, even 3 months after they finished their last session. What an opportunity to make mental support more available to people!
Yes I’m excited as you can see, but I think the story behind why we did it and where we plan to go to is even more exciting.
Let me take you through my personal Inuka story!
For me personally, there are 3 reasons.
Reason Number 1: I myself faced the struggle we try to solve: people seek help they need too late.
- My year of struggle. In 2015, for a year I struggled mentally; on all fronts in life things fell apart slowly; I got physical challenges, my parent’s company was struggling, a close family member passed away and my presumed love of my life turned out to be with someone else. Most importantly, I just couldn’t deal with it very well. I was worried, feeling constantly down and every day I had less moments of joy until very little joy was left.
- Why I didn’t find the right help. Although I started meditation and yoga which all helped me, I never thought there was really something wrong until it was too late. I just couldn’t see that I, the always strong, energetic and optimistic one, would need any mental help. Plus, what would that help be? Who to ask for help? A psychologist you only go to if there is really something wrong, right? So, I never sought the support I needed, even though it was available.
- My depression. For me, this meant that eventually I ended up staying home for 3 months being clinically depressed. This despite loving my job at the Philips Africa Innovation hub at the time. I just couldn’t get out of bed anymore. It was the darkest, most isolated and scary period of my life. I shot out a lot of people, lost all conceptions I had about who I was and was reduced to a little heap of nothing.
- What helped me get through it. I was in the fortunate position that I had loving friends and family around me, a government that is wealthy enough to pay for sick leave, a company (Philips) that supported me fully and a solid health care system that I entered at that point, giving me the space to recover. Furthermore, after a first failed try, after 3 months of searching I finally found a therapist and psychiatrist that really suited me, because they gave me the space to tell my story and give me the support I needed to recover. Unfortunately, this kind of support is not available to most people on our planet.. Which leads to the next part of the story.
- The light amidst darkness. This part is where a hero appeared in my story. In the middle of this depression, my manager at Philips – who is still part of the Inuka team until this day – saw an opportunity in my mess: he wanted to explore setting up a social enterprise that would help people with mental health challenges in Africa. And with his mind, seeing opportunities everywhere, he thought I would be the perfect person to lead it, because hey, I had solid experience being depressed myself. My first reaction was for him to leave me alone, because I was depressed wanting to take a step back waitressing in my home city Almere. But, he persisted.
- The result. So, here I am, 3 years after I sat crying on the couch at my parents place because I just didn’t have the energy to get off the couch and go to work. Healthy, happy and grateful for everyone who supported me and for Maarten for having given me this chance. Most of all, I’m proud that we built something as a result that might be able to help many people avoid ending up in a situation like me.
Reason number 2: Mental distress is one of the world’s biggest and most neglected problems.
Which is what inspired my manager Maarten to ask me to dive into the mental health world. Stress, worry and mental illness is one of biggest problems the world currently faces, and there is too little attention given to it.
Let me put it into perspective:
- Every year 1 in 5 people get depression, anxiety disorder or both.
- In Europe and the US, about 1 in 4 feels lonely regularly.
- Mental health challenges impacts not only happiness, but also health and how much the affected can contribute to their families and to society. For example, people with depression are 5 times more likely to get a heart attack, have children who are malnourished, and are less likely to take their HIV/AIDS medications.
- Loneliness, social media addiction and increased global instability add dangerous components that intensify or cause mental health problems.
- Somehow, only an average of 3% of total government (healthcare) globally is spent on mental healthcare.
- Waiting lists for professional help are too long, and there is still a big taboo surrounding the sharing of problems openly in most places in the world.
- Globally, this has made suicide the first case of death for young people between 16-25 years old.
This has to change.
So how do we think we can change that?
This brings me to the third reason:
Reason number 3: I met mental-health superhero and now Inuka co-founder Dixon Chibanda
Besides being a rockstar both figuratively and literally, our co-founder and psychiatrist Prof. Dixon Chibanda has spent most of his life making mental health care more accessible for people through the Friendship bench project. In his global TED talk, he explains how he has effectively brought support and treatment by training hundreds of grandmothers on problem solving therapy (PST).
I first met Dixon in 2015 in Canada when I was looking for interventions to scale up via the phone, and was immediately impressed with his story and project. He had successfully trained grandmothers and people without psychology backgrounds to provide cognitive behavioral therapy and proven its efficiency – and is now scaling up across Zimbabwe and beyond, including places such as New York and Zanzibar.
Back in 2015 he was fortunately not as known of a researcher globally, so he had significant time to spend with me (☺). We teamed up and organized a hackathon in Nairobi, Kenya, where we brought together professionals, Philips designers and researchers, patients and myself to translate the Friendship Bench intervention digitally, by way of a phone app. At this hackathon we encountered our third co-founder Annie, who then had become a recent Phillips employee.
So did we succeed in translating the highly successful Friendship Bench therapy in that hackathon? No – on the contrary, we failed miserably as a completely automated therapy app was just really hard to translate in an empathic and real manner for those struggling with the issues we wanted to provide a solution for. The feedback we got from our then clients wasn’t very positive. However, we did feel a sense or revived spark about the project, and felt we could make this project a success together and with more work. Thus, by joining forces officially, ‘Inuka’ was born!
So what do we offer?
For anyone who is confronted with challenges in life or just feels down or stressed, Inuka can be of help.
Our guides help you with big problems in life, such as losing a job, divorce or having a chronic illness, or with ‘smaller’ ones like quitting smoking, financial difficulties, or trying to lose weight. If your way of thinking interferes with your day to day functioning or job, it is time to seek help.
We offer a 1-2 month program which entails the following:
- A free self-assessment to better understand how you are doing now and provide information to your guide
- 4 1-on-1 45-minute chat sessions with your own personal guide with in-between support
- Positive outcomes for the majority of our users: 96% of our pilot participants said this program helped them deal with their problems more effectively!
For most people, 4-8 sessions are sufficient to get grip back onto their lives and feel sustainably better.
Very importantly, we ensure the quality of your guide with 3 key ingredients:
- They have to complete an university-accredited course in the Inuka guidance methodology. This methodology has shown to be highly effective in a big trial with over 500 participants.
- Our careful selection and a build-in guidance & quality system on the platform ensures the quality of the guides that are on the platform is high.
- All guides are supported by professional psychologists to ensure they can also take care of you on your worst days!
We believe Inuka makes is much easier for people to reach out for support, because discrete, affordable and evidence-based support is only a couple of clicks away.
So what is our plan?
Now we come to the most exciting part!
We have a couple of things we need to do to make this a success.
- Firstly, we want to do a larger beta-test in Kenya with a first group of clients who are willing to give feedback. In return, they get a discounted service and our eternal love. You can sign up now! ☺
- Secondly, we want scale our services up, and do beta tests in other countries too, and explore other ways to reach everyone, also the people that are not able to afford our services.
Interested? Ideas? Would like to support us or know more? Visit our website: inuka.io
I’m impressed you managed to hold on so long, so thank you VERY much for reading this story, and wish you a great day!