Tampa Bay area organizations harness technology to distinguish themselves in the mental health care field

Despite rising societal awareness and understanding, in many rooms, mental health is still the elephant in the room.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost one in five American adults’ lives with a mental illness. Depression alone costs the U.S. economy $210.5 billion annually, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health. For every mental health condition that could be treated just like any other medical condition, many such conditions go untreated.

The website of TAO Connect, a digital health company in St. Petersburg, offers some reasons that people suffer: the stigma, the cost of treatment and/or the time it takes for treatment.

Sherry Benton founded TAO Connect, in 2014, and launched it commercially in July of 2015. TAO stands for “Therapy assistance online.”

“Basically,” Benton says, “we’re a huge suite of tools for behavioral and mental health. We have over 400 videos, a whole library of mindfulness activities, a couple of hundred interactive exercises [and] some practice tools for learning new skills.”

Benton first came up with the idea for TAO Connect as the director of the counseling center at the University of Florida, where the demand for mental health services exceeded the supply.

Seeing a market for convenient, easily-accessible therapy Benton struck gold. TAO was nearly the first of its kind in a space that has since exploded with hundreds of apps. A few years later, TAO’s primary market remains college and university counseling centers.

TAO has carved out a niche for itself in this market. It’s flexible, with administrators having the ability to create virtually any kind of course, whether about anger management, substance use and abuse or even a first-year wellness course. Departments across campus can tailor the platform to their desired purpose.

In the near future, TAO plans to launch an artificial intelligence-based chatbot. This highly sophisticated bot will draw on the 300,000 courses that TAO has delivered to select the best resources for users. The bot will conduct an initial screening and ask users various questions.

A main barrier to accessing mental health services is still the pervasive social stigma associated with doing so. In certain circles, and for certain people, the stigma is even worse. Perhaps worse than the stigma is a lack of access. Benton says that according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 106 million people, in the United States and its territories, live in areas that are underserved by mental health providers. Fifty-six percent of counties nationwide have no licensed mental health providers.

Originally from the Midwest, Benton re-located to St. Petersburg after eight years in Gainesville. When TAO was getting off the ground, its current CEO, Bob Clark, made a small initial investment in the company. Clark also expressed interest in his current position. A psychologist by training, Benton knew that TAO would benefit from Clark’s background in business and software. She wanted to take Clark aboard but knew that he “was not going to survive living inland,” Benton says. So she made a home for TAO in sunny, beachy St. Petersburg.

Benton also chose the Tampa Bay region because travel out of Gainesville is “prohibitively expensive,” she says. Travel is important to Benton so she can spread the word about TAO. Another reason she chose Tampa Bay is the talent in the area. While Gainesville has plenty of new graduates from the University of Florida, it doesn’t have the more experienced professionals of the bay area.

Six years after its founding, TAO has firmly established itself as an invaluable mental health resource from college campuses to Canada.

TAO Connect isn’t the only Tampa Bay-area organization using technology to improve mental health treatment. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has an electronic health records system, text and video chat and more.

“Our organization acts as a gateway, where people who are going through a crisis in their lives can call into our contact center and speak to a specialist who’s trained to provide support,” says Ken Gibson, senior director of marketing and public relations at the Crisis Center. “What we have actually is a database of over 3,000 different resources. And these are going to be nonprofit organizations, government agencies, even businesses that have a sliding scale, where they provide discounts for people based on their different income levels, to be able to help people through various types of crisis situations.”

The database exists to help those who call 2-1-1, 800-273-TALK, 844-MyFLVet and other support lines. The Crisis Center even plans to consider using telemedicine.

Another Tampa Bay-area organization, Gracepoint Wellness, is making good use of technological innovations. A behavioral health provider, Gracepoint provides a video chat platform through its Virtual Health platform, as well as a patient portal, live chat and health information exchange.

Joe Lallanilla, director of performance improvement and analytics for Gracepoint, says that the health information exchange “notifies Gracepoint teams in real time when one of [its] patients is admitted to a hospital emergency department anywhere in the [s]tate of Florida. This email notification has helped reduce [and] eliminate avoidable [emergency department] visits.”

Gracepoint also offers real-time email notifications about a patient’s condition. In addition, patients can provide feedback via text message after an outpatient appointment. While receiving inpatient services, patients are asked to give feedback on a tablet.

“This,” Lallanilla says, “has proven to be invaluable for both Gracepoint and the patients we serve as patient service recovery needs are addressed prior to inpatient discharge and within 24 hours of each outpatient appointment.”

Along with TAO Connect, both Gracepoint Wellness and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay are improving mental health care through the power of technology. As these organizations do their part, Tampa Bay residents can do their part, too, by eradicating the stigma associated with accessing the invaluable services that these organizations provide. People’s lives depend on it. ♦

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