Richa Singh was at college in Guwahati when her roommate, worried about a place in India’s skyrocketing jobs market, took her own life. It was a tragedy—and, for Singh, a call to arms.
“She wouldn’t approach a psychologist,” Singh tells Red Herring. “There’s so much stigma about counseling in India.”
Singh is now co-founder and CEO of YourDOST (‘dost’ means ‘friend’ in Hindi), an online platform that aims to connect a growing number of people affected by mental health issues with therapy. Almost two years after launching the company has served around 650,000 users, at a rate which is growing by 40% month on month.
Despite the promising figures, Singh says the main roadblock she faces is outreach. As India’s economy booms, and millions of people enter its middle class, corporate stress and depression is running wild. 43.5% of corporate India suffers from stress, Singh says. She is aiming to redress that.
“It’s a behavioral change: 99% of the people in India have never taken counseling before,” she says. “How do you tell them it’s ok to be vulnerable; it’s ok to seek support?”
YourDOST works on a freemium model whereby users, who find the site primarily via articles and social media content, can pay to speak to counselors online or by phone. The company, based in India’s tech capital of Bangalore, has 20 employees including four in-house experts, who assess the quality of therapy being given.
The idea grew organically. Stunned by her roommate’s death Singh began asking friends and colleagues about their mental health. She soon discovered most of them had suffered depression, and wished they had someone with whom to speak.
Then Singh conducted a study across the entire country. “85-90% of people said the same thing: that they did not feel able to talk things out because of the fear of judgement,” she says.
“Because of the ways our economies are changing, because of the transformation we are going through, there’s a lot of stress,” she adds. “And we don’t live with our families any more, which have been the traditional support structures. The kinds of stress my parents had, I have much more of it.”
The statistics are alarming. A World Health Organization (WHO) study recently found that India is home to the largest number of depressed people worldwide. India currently has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, with over 15 deaths per 100,000 people.
Suicide is the eighth most common cause of death in India, accounting for 281,949 lives per year. The only nation with a comparable population, China, suffers just 120,730 annual suicide deaths.
Creating an awareness around this, Singh says, is tough: “People see it as a sign of weakness when they visit a psychologist. So removing the stigma was the first part.” The second, she adds, was connecting people with professionals. Most mental health centers are unknown in India. And their rigid operating hours—sometimes as tight as 11am to 3pm—don’t comply with the 24-hour issue of mental health.
Singh wants YourDOST to be “more preventative” of these illnesses, she says. India, she adds, needs 11,500 psychiatrists. It has just 3,500. Having started with a blog she bootstrapped the site with $400,000 in angel investment and went online in December 2014.
The site now handles roughly 1,000 counseling sessions per day. Subject range from relationships to careers, and almost everything in between. “We see a lot of gays and lesbians reaching out to us,” Singh says. “Because in a society which is very closeted, it can be a big worry for people and affect their productivity.” 34% of lost productivity is attributable to stress or depression.
Ultimately Singh, who has a calm demeanor and speaks passionately about her company, wants to completely change India’s attitudes to mental health. She wants to use data gathered at YourDOST to improve education in India, which ranks 111th on the World Happiness Index (number one, incidentally, is Denmark).
Because of this Singh still writes blogs about mental health. Perhaps it will help reduce tragedies like the one that stole her college roommate. In a country the size of India, YourDOST could have an incredibly big effect. Singh knows it.
“It’s something that drives each one of us, that testimonial when someone says because of us their life got changed,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with you for going through counseling. It’s helps us to become stronger, better.
“It’s not a sign of insanity.”