A Bid to Boost Youth Mental Health via Mobile App?
There’s no denying it: Young people in America are facing a mental health crisis. In an ongoing series published this month, The New York Times has shown how children with psychiatric needs are overwhelming pediatricians’ offices and emergency rooms. Locally, M Health Fairview has even converted an ambulance garage into a “makeshift holding unit” for children with a range of pressing mental health concerns, the Star Tribune reported a couple weeks ago.
At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution to aid children during this national crisis. But co-founder Jonah Salita believes he may have found a preventative solution in a new app he calls Diall. It’s a scrollable app comparable to TikTok, where users peruse curated educational content centered on mental health topics, such as setting boundaries and imposter syndrome.
Based in Excelsior, Salita likens the app to treating high cholesterol before getting a heart attack. Characterizing it as highly engaging, upstream, and short-form content, Salita and his fellow co-founder Marcel Johnson developed the app in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, finding that there weren’t many options for youth to learn about mental health.
After jumping into the research, the two found that most Gen Z individuals preferred turning to friends for mental health help, rather than parents or professionals. “Something that was going to be really important was that mental health would have to be approachable, diverse and inclusive, and accessible,” said Salita. “We’re a direct-to-consumer tech company. We’re not care providers—we’re focused on the education of it. Our goal is to make it fun and enjoyable.”
He adds: “All of us see hundreds of advertisements a day for digital therapy alternatives, self-help apps, meditation apps, and even digital psychiatry, but we rarely see vetted educational content that is aimed at learning the “what” and “why” behind our problems before diving deeper. Since there are a million resources available, but many are still inaccessible, it’s like running through an obstacle course with a blindfold on.”
How it works
To create its educational content, Diall partners with diverse licensed professionals who undergo a screening process to be part of the company’s mental health advisory committee. The recruited professionals assist with the design of the content, and then younger folks work to make it more accessible to younger generations.
“For Diall, we use a bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach. We don’t take a prescriptive approach, so our goal is not to tell you if you’re experiencing this, you might need to do this,” said Salita. “Instead, we’re here to present you with information, which is why we’re more education-focused.”
The app itself works in an “internal flow mode,” where the user must go through and actively consume its curriculum in order to unlock the next video. Taking a step away from traditional social media apps where the user can scroll endlessly, the Diall user must complete a challenge or activity to take away a key lesson that can be implemented into their mental health exercises.
Since the app doesn’t rely on ads and therefore heavy screentime for profit, the content isn’t longer than three minutes.
“Many of the ways to ‘get help’ are boring, too serious, expensive, not relatable, and complex. Add in a continual bad news bias, a global pandemic that increased isolation, and recent research that suggests social media fuels anxiety and makes it harder for today’s young people to cope with the pressures of growing up. It’s no wonder Gen Z is struggling,” said Salita. “We learn how to swipe before learning how to regulate our emotions. We learn how to like someone else’s photo before finding our own identity, and our social systems continue to focus on managing crises rather than solving the root issue.”
Getting schools on board
Diall is a for-profit, direct-to-consumer business first-and-foremost, said Salita. All of the app’s offering are free, except for its premium “mental health pathways feature.” But the company is now beginning to share all of its offerings with students through partnerships with local schools. Diall has established a business-to-business arm that works with schools and institutions. Salita said that younger users have directly gone and pitched Diall to their school boards.
As the community of young Diall users began to grow, the co-founders were inspired to take their app directly to schools, which essentially act as a gatekeeper to thousands of students, said Salita.
“We’re really starting to build a community. And as we continue to develop our product, as well as scale up our content, we’re going to be building a lot more network-effect type features that are going to help us scale and use this really great key insight that we’ve had from our initial users,” said Salita.
Currently, Diall is working with institutions, including Minnetonka schools, to provide volume-based discounts to help bigger populations and make it more accessible for communities that might not have discovered the app on their own. The schools pay for Diall’s mental health pathways feature as well as per student on a per month basis.
In return, Diall provides quarterly utilization reporting on a population level that schools can leverage to stay ahead of trends.
Diall is currently in talks with more than 25 institutions nationwide.
Diall co-founders have bootstrapped the business in its first two years with $53,000 that came out of their own pockets. Now, the company is finishing up its pre-seed round by raising $1.4 million with half of the sum already committed.
Although business just recently started picking up in the last year, Salita envisions that 10 years from now, Diall will be a global leader in helping young people deal with mental health concerns.
“I think mental health issues/crises should be understood as the consequence of inadequate early intervention and education rather than a simple state of the current world,” said Salita. “I think we need to turn our focus on treating causes rather than treating symptoms and providing better bridges from the lesser-educated, underserved, and under-resourced to accessible solutions. We need to give younger people a seat at the table and empower their lived experiences while building solutions in tandem with them.”