Help yourself

Can you treat depression with an app? New self-help portal Selfapy not only wants to help you online, but offline as well as it gets fit on Oct 15 with the "Happy Mind Run" starting at Adidas Runbase at 13:00.

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

Can a new self-help app solve Germany’s lagging mental healthcare system?

Germany faces one huge problem when it comes to the approximately four million people here who battle depression – a lack of therapy places available. Now, a Berlin based start-up hopes to bridge the gap between the doctor’s office and the therapy couch.

Online self-help course Selfapy is the brainchild of mid-twentysomethings Nora Blum and Kati Bermbach. They met at a lecture at Cambridge two summers ago. “We were two Germans abroad, so naturally we got talking. And because we were both psychology students, we started talking about the lack of treatment opportunities for people with depression.” In Germany, the average waiting time for a publicly insured person to see a therapist is three months. This is a huge problem given another statistic: many Germans don’t tend to go to the doctor until they’re already feeling hopeless. On average, that’s about 11 months after the first symptoms of depression.

This is the point when they need immediate help and none is available. Bermbach worked at Charité hospital during her studies, where she had to phone patients to let them know that there was no current availability for therapy. Those phone calls could take up to two hours, because Charité wasn’t the first clinic these patients were trying and they were too desperate to give up. This is the painful gap in the medical cycle Selfapy is targeting.

Selfapy is not intended as a substitution for real therapy. ‘There’s something very unique in the relationship between patient and therapist, and we’d hate to take that away.’

Blum is very clear about the fact that Selfapy is not intended as a substitution for real therapy. “There’s something very unique in the relationship between patient and therapist, and we’d hate to take that away.” Which is not to say there’s no work involved. Developed by psychologists and researchers with years of experience in the field, the app offers a mix of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and positive psychology in its online modules. A series of worksheet-like questionnaires will help you examine your own behaviour and the thought patterns behind it. They’ll ask you to break down your thought process the last time you procrastinated on something, for example, then ask you to figure out what practical steps you can implement to make small changes towards your larger goal. This is sent to a psychologist, with whom you have a weekly phone consultation. There’s also offline “homework” to reinforce the lessons: worksheets you fill out to record everything you’ve done in the day, to ensure that the small achievements you might commonly overlook are set down in writing. The course is only available in German at the moment, but watch this space: they are planning to translate the content into English next.

So, does it work? The initial studies, which took place over three months, were promising. As dutiful ex-science students, Blum and Bermbach are reluctant to give out statistics yet, since they want to make sure the results remain stable. However, judging from the volume of chocolates, flowers and grateful emails Blum and Bermbach have received since launching their product, it’s been a resounding success. Currently, the nine-week online course costs €125, including the weekly phone call – very little in comparison with the cost of just one session with a private therapist, normally around the €100 mark. Blum and Bermbach want to use the results of the study to prove that their product helps those who suffer from depression so that by next year, health insurance companies will cover the cost of the course completely for its users.

Selfapy’s larger goal isn’t just financial freedom for users, though. They want to build a community of users who support each other, “like Weight Watchers”, and they hope this can go some way to combat the stigma around seeking help for mental illness. In a world full of online marketing initiatives and financial tech companies, a company like Selfapy seems that most special of things: a start-up that genuinely seems capable of changing people’s lives.

Join Selfapy in closing out Psychological Health Week with their “Happy Mind Run”, a 5km fun run through Kreuzberg and Neukölln, starting at 13:00 on October 15 at Adidas Runbase. Details here.