So many parents don’t realize their kids are suffering with depression or other mental health issues until it’s too late.
Doug Kaufman, a trained psychologist, didn’t recognize the signs when his own daughter was self-harming.
His daughter had just turned 13, and Kaufman’s wife suspected something was wrong with their only child, who they noticed was often angry and isolating herself. As the trouble persisted, they only found out by logging into their daughter’s phone that she was talking about loneliness and depression in a group chat with friends, which had escalated to talk of self-harm.
This experience is a major influence on why Kaufman, a serial entrepreneur who previously made his mark as the CEO of transit-finder app TransLoc—which sold to Ford for $60M in 2018—created his new startup, Vertroos Health.
“When you look at the situation, you know, we only have the one kid,” Kaufman said. “My wife is a stay-at-home mom who is all up in our daughter’s business all the time. My background is in psychology. I’m not traveling all the time, I’m here—and we didn’t catch this until she was already hurting herself.”
Though the Kaufman family may have been better positioned than most to recognize the mental-health signs, they still weren’t able to see their daughter was struggling.
“So my thought really was, what chance do any of us parents have in knowing what’s really going on with these kids?” he asked. “Especially because of all the technology now, there’s so much that’s hidden from us.”
Kaufman’s answer was Vertroos Health’s first product, Nika. Nika will provide parents with an analysis based on their children’s text messages and social media posts to see if they display any mental-health warning signs.
Pandemic Making Matters Worse
When Kaufman made the decision in January to start Vertroos Health, mental-health issues in kids and teens had already been skyrocketing for years.
The Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated the problem, Kaufman notes. He said investors and parents are desperately looking for and interested in a solution to the growing loneliness and anxiety that has accompanied the pandemic.
Kaufman and his Co-Founder David Rasch—who served in leadership roles at iContact, ReverbNation and Infinia ML—started together on Vertroos Health in April.
Vertroos Health’s initial product Nika is a SaaS subscription-based service. From pulling in teens’ social media accounts and text messages, Nika’s algorithm, based on scientific research in mental health, produces a report.
The Vertroos Health team is helping to train the algorithm by picking what information is important to show the parents, then producing a weekly report on how each kid is doing as well as a well-being scale, plus trends and insights. This allows parents to know if their child has spoken about depression or self-harm before it’s too late.
Once the parents know, Vertroos Health provides recommendations and resources for parents, including guides on how to have these difficult conversations with their kids and consultations with the Vertroos Health team on where to go next.
While it’s easy to see that kids would push back on a product that provides parents some insight into their text messages and social media, Kaufman said privacy is a big issue for Vertroos Health, and they are committed to making sure their technology is not used as a spy tool for parents.
The only time parents can see messages their kids sent is if Nika shows something worrisome in regards to their child’s mental health. Kaufman said he encourages parents to always tell their kids that they are using Nika, not hiding it from them.
“What we recommend telling the kids is this: ‘there are all these parental control apps out there that would let me see everything you do. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to get one of those. I want you to have privacy, and I want to trust you and you to trust me. And at the same time as your parent, I need to know if you’re struggling or need help.’”
A Fitbit For Mental Health
Some teenagers have expressed excitement about Nika when Kaufman and Rasch explain their vision is for it to one day be a Fitbit for mental health, Kaufman said.
Nika’s MVP testers have been limited to just 10 families, but Vertroos Health hopes for a wider launch in around six months.
The subscription cost isn’t finalized, but Kaufman said they want Nika to be inexpensive so anyone can have this for their kids. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to knowing if your kids are struggling, he said.
In the future, Kaufman said the bootstrapped Vertroos Health sees further revenue opportunities in providing Nika to therapists, allowing a more holistic picture of the children they treat.
For his own daughter, Kaufman said if they had known the path she was on just a few weeks earlier, they may have been able to help her avoid self-harming altogether, which he said is like alcoholism in that it can keep coming back later in life.
“We might have been able to stop that and help her get on a more healthy path sooner and faster that could potentially change not just her immediate life, but for years and years to come,” he said.
Nika can help give other parents the insight that Kaufman and his wife didn’t have.
Mental-health issues take a toll on the whole family, Kaufman said. So many parents have confided in him and asked what they did wrong, ultimately blaming themselves in what becomes a harmful cycle.
“If we can have an impact on that cycle,” he said, “I think we’ll be able to help potentially millions of families change the course of their kids’ lives.”