The State of Mental Health

A conversation with Arianna Huffington.

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Integrating different disciplines and divergent viewpoints can transform the experience of mental health — for both individuals and society. In November 2020, Inscopix hosted the DECODE 2020 Summit — a virtual event that brought together leaders from diverse fields to share perspectives and possibilities for the future of mental wellness. In her keynote fireside chat with Dr. Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Arianna Huffington reinforced the importance of interweaving stories and data in order to deepen the understanding of the challenges we face today and to uncover solutions for tomorrow. Following DECODE, Inscopix CEO, Kunal Ghosh, and Arianna spoke about the event and the path forward to address personal and societal mental wellness.

Kunal Ghosh (KG): Arianna, it was such an honor to host you at the Inscopix DECODE Summit. Your fireside chat with Josh on the future of mental health was truly engaging and actionable. During the event, we heard from many leaders across sectors, from academia, biopharma industry, government, non-profits and media. Can you share a key learning that you took away from the event?

Arianna Huffington (AH): What I took away from the DECODE 2020 Summit was both the scale of the challenge in front of us, as well as the opportunities, in terms of mental health. Coming into the pandemic, we were already in a mental health crisis, and it has only intensified over the past year. And long after the pandemic ends, this mental health crisis — which some are calling the “fourth wave” of the pandemic — will continue. It’s going to be front and center in conversations around public health, productivity, and creating a new normal in the way we live and work.

At the same time, I’m optimistic about the solutions we’re bringing to help counteract this emergency. Findings in neuroscience, like those of Dr. Leanne Williams at Stanford Medicine, who spoke at the summit and whose work Dr. Gordon and I discussed, are being applied to people’s everyday lives. The science is showing us how to effectively address mental health issues by going upstream and understanding our individual signs of stress so we can take small steps to recharge and manage our stress before it culminates and overwhelms us.

KG: You founded Thrive Global as a behavioral change technology company with a mission of improving well-being to unlock human potential. What compelled you to step down as the Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post to start a company focused on this initiative? And, in this very crowded space of mental health and wellness, how does Thrive create unique value for the people and organizations that you serve?

AH: The seeds for creating Thrive Global go back to 2007. I’d founded The Huffington Post just two years previously. I was working 18 hours a day and we were growing at an incredible pace. Then, at the end of a week-long tour of colleges with my oldest daughter, during which I stayed up late into the nights working, I collapsed and broke my cheekbone on my desk.

So, I started learning more and more about the connection between well-being, resilience and productivity. I realized that this idea that burnout is the price we have to pay for success is a complete myth. That led me to write my two books, Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. And as I went around the world speaking about them, and about the issues of stress, burnout, mental health and sleep deprivation, I saw how deeply people want to change their lives. I wanted to go beyond just speaking out and raising awareness — I felt the need to turn this passion into something real and tangible that would help people make real changes in their daily lives. So, I founded Thrive Global in 2016.

What makes Thrive unique in the mental health and well-being space is that we’re the only company that takes a truly whole-human approach. We understand that creating meaningful, sustainable change isn’t just about moving from point A to point B. And it’s not about undergoing a major life overhaul. It’s about taking small steps to tap into what’s best in us — our creativity, wisdom and strength. We call them Microsteps: small, science-backed steps you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life.

We bring in the latest cutting-edge technology, A.I., neuroscience and behavioral science, along with ancient wisdom, storytelling and new role models of success, to create solutions for every aspect of our well-being — for how we live, for how we work, and for what truly motivates us to change our behavior. 

KG: As a scientist-entrepreneur, I was really struck by a comment you made at DECODE 2020 about the transformative impact of bringing neuroscience research and innovation to the world. As a behavioral change tech company, can you give us a glimpse into how Thrive incorporates neuroscience into your products, services, and approach? Also, what are some of the challenges and opportunities that you see in moving neuroscience innovations from labs to millions of people? What could we as an ecosystem be doing better to accelerate that process? 

AH: Another of Thrive’s differentiators is that everything we do is backed by science, and we work closely with several leading neuroscientists to bring the latest research and insights to our products and platform. For example, we partnered with Dr. Leanne Williams at Stanford Medicine to create Thriving Mind, which is a groundbreaking mental health program that helps us understand the different ways we all respond to stress and anxiety and gives us personalized strategies to build our mental resilience.

In her research, Dr. Williams has identified eight biotypes for how we respond to stress. And once we understand these biotypes, we know which Microsteps are best suited to help us manage our stress and prevent it from leading to burnout or other mental health issues. In taking Dr. Williams’ cutting-edge neuroscience from the lab and applying it to people’s everyday lives, Thriving Mind is one of the ways we’re bringing the new thinking around precision health to mental health.

One of the challenges is making complicated neuroscience accessible to non-neuroscientists! That’s why partnerships can be so powerful in bringing your innovations to millions of people. That’s where Thrive comes in. For example, based on neuroscience that we can course-correct from stress in 60-90 seconds, we created Reset, a popular feature in our app that lets you select images, quotes and sounds that bring you calm and joy in just 60 seconds. And in our partnerships with Stanford Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health and CAA Foundation, with which we launched our First Responders First initiative to support first responders, we’ve seen an increasing desire to bring the latest science to real, everyday problems. The science is there, so what we need now are ways to translate that science into tools and solutions for people’s daily lives. 

KG: It’s been four years since you started Thrive. What has fascinated or surprised you the most about neuroscience and mental health in this journey? What earned insights can you share with entrepreneurs who are interested in starting companies in this space? 

AH: The finding that I remain fascinated — and inspired — by is just how much of our mental health crisis and our epidemic of stress and burnout is caused by how we live and work. In the U.S., 75% of our healthcare costs go toward treating chronic, stress-related conditions — like heart disease and diabetes — that can be managed or even prevented. Recently, there was a World Health Organization report showing that chronic, non-communicable diseases are taking a bigger toll than they were 20 years ago.

And what I find inspiring is all the science showing how effective it is for our physical and mental health to go upstream, where we can address the root causes of stress, mental health issues and many chronic conditions.

My advice for entrepreneurs is to remember that while creating solutions for mental health, you have to safeguard your own. That means following the advice we hear on airplanes — put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Entrepreneurs and founders are at a high risk of burnout, and our culture too often romanticizes those who burn the candle at both ends. But entrepreneurs have an incredible opportunity to not only create game-changing new companies and products, but to role model the kind of healthy beliefs and behaviors to others who look up to them. The most effective, visionary entrepreneurs are those who are deliberate about stepping out of the storm into the calm eye of the hurricane, where they can tap into their creativity, wisdom and intuition.

KG: This has been a difficult year for those of us leading companies, with the pandemic and social distancing measures. How has Thrive adapted to support the mental health and well-being of your employees? What is the biggest challenge you see in making well-being a priority within mainstream corporate culture and how can we overcome it in this so-called “new normal”? 

AH: Thrive has always been committed to living our values and making sure we’re a sustainable startup. During the pandemic, that means we’ve been more deliberate about making sure our Thrive team members take time to unplug and recharge and nurture their own resilience.

That has meant doubling down on our cultural values. The core of which is Compassionate Directness, which is about surfacing feedback, problems and any challenges — pandemic-related or otherwise — team members might be facing in real time. Another is Thrive Time, based on the recognition that, of course, getting results and meeting deadlines often requires putting in extra time and going the extra mile. Thrive Time is what allows us to sustain that. It means taking time off to recover and recharge after you’ve met the deadline, shipped the product or worked over the weekend. It could be a few hours, a morning, a whole day or even longer.

To ward off virtual fatigue and create more time for deep work, we’ve circulated a list of best practices for virtual meetings with the goal being to cancel as many meetings as possible. We want to empower all team members to decline any meeting they feel isn’t worth their valuable time. We’ve also held a Thriving Mind workshop for Thrivers, led by our Chief Training Officer Joey Hubbard, which gives people tools and strategies to nurture their mental resilience. And we’ve encouraged team members to take staycations, reminding them that taking time off to recharge doesn’t require going somewhere exotic.

The biggest challenge we’re seeing with the partners we work with isn’t in making well-being a priority. They get it — they realize how deeply the well-being of their employees is tied to their bottom line. The bigger challenge now is about solutions and about how to make changes within corporate culture that boost mental health and well-being.

A big part of this is focusing on the human layer. As we look ahead to re-entering offices and other public places, workplaces and real estate providers are outbidding each other to come up with the most innovative tech-infused offerings that will reinvent these physical spaces. Of course, all these tech solutions are important for our physical safety, but in many ways, these new gadgets and protocols will be the easiest part of working and living in the next normal. The indispensable — and more challenging — thing left out of so many discussions is our mental and emotional state as we step forward. Because there is no device that can give us the resilience we’ll need to thrive in a fundamentally different world, and no tech solution for how to interact effectively and compassionately with one another. 

KG: What do you envision will be the biggest challenges in 2021 for mental health care, as we continue to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic? What are some recent wins within the mental health space that give you hope for the future?  

AH: The biggest challenge in 2021 for mental healthcare is going to be creating a new normal that actually nurtures mental health and resilience. The issue of boundaryless work was a problem even before 2020. The pandemic made it exponentially worse, andrebuilding those boundaries is going to be a challenge even after the pandemic is over.

And then there are the lingering mental and psychological effects of what we have collectively experienced. Frank Snowden, a historian of pandemics at Yale, told The Guardian he sees a second pandemic coming “in the train of the Covid-19 first pandemic… [a] psychological pandemic.”

What gives me hope is how central mental health and resilience have become in the conversation, not just in public health, but in the business world. From celebrities and athletes to business leaders and politicians, mental health has moved firmly into the mainstream. That’s a huge change from when I launched Thrive Global in 2016. The challenge now is to create change, at both the individual and collective levels.

But I’m optimistic because we’re really in a golden age of mental health and well-being science, and it’s exciting to see all the innovation there is in applying this science to people’s lives. For instance, we’ve just created a Mental Resilience Dashboard that’s going to give business leaders a first-of-its-kind view into the mental health, well-being and warning signs for burnout of their employees.

Another thing that gives me hope is how the business world has put mental health and the importance of human connection at the center — whereas it used to be much more on the margins, a sort of check-the-box HR.

In the past, at big company moments, it was often the CEO and CFO breaking the news to employees, shareholders and other stakeholders. A distinctive feature of the coronavirus pandemic has been to elevate the role of the CHRO, who is often visibly helping CEOs manage the present and lead their companies into the future.

At Accenture, for example, Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook now meets virtually with company leaders twice a week — instead of in-person once a quarter — to discuss key people and operations issues. And at Cisco, Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas is leading, along with CEO Chuck Robbins, a weekly meeting for all 75,900 employees. This meeting, which used to be monthly, is an example, as she told me, of how “the workplace is becoming the new definition of community… Sometimes our employees bring in their families. We talk about business updates. We talk about mental health and well-being. We laugh a little about seeing each other’s homes, kids and pets on WebEx.”

This elevation of the CHRO is going to outlast Covid-19 and permanently change the way we do business — for the better. Because the pandemic is dramatically proving what many forward-thinking CHROs knew long before anyone had heard of Covid-19: Organizational resilience — the ability to adapt, innovate and succeed — is directly tied to employees’ individual physical, mental and emotional resilience.

KG: Many readers of this interview will be scientists, engineers, and technologists. One key point that you made during the fireside at DECODE 2020, which really resonated with me, was the importance and power of storytelling and connecting with people on an emotional level. It is something that many of us in STEM fields often tend to overlook or struggle with. What advice do you have for us in this sector to become more effective communicators and advocates of the work we do to advance the human condition? 

AH: To remember that, of course, data is useful, but stories are really how we make sense of our world. It’s stories that truly move us — stories of people overcoming obstacles, building healthy habits, or just making small changes that over time will have a big impact. So, the more scientists, engineers and those working in technology that can translate their work into stories, the more powerful and effective their work will be.

Stories and data each have their own power; when we shape our perspectives and insights through an integration of each, we more completely understand the world around us. And ourselves.

You can watch or learn more about the Inscopix DECODE 2020 Summit here.

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