Israeli start-up invents traumatic anxiety-treating app
With Israel unfortunately being a leading force in dealing with traumatic events, one psychologist and three former elite IDF fighters are looking to help work through trauma-induced anxiety via automated app; 'We are saturated with difficult events,' says the company's CEO, who wants to harness Israel's knowledge for good.
Anxiety and posttrauma are conditions that afflict a large number of people in Israeli society, including quite a few children and adolescents, and many fail to get rid of the symptoms long after the event that caused them.
A study from 2012 found that in Sderot, half of the high school students suffer from post-trauma caused by Qassam rockets, and another study from 2014 that examined anxiety victims who were taken to Soroka Medical Center for treatment during Operation Pillar of Defense revealed that half of them continued to suffer from anxiety symptoms (such as impaired concentration, sleep and mood swings) eight months after treatment. Additionally, at a Knesset hearing one year ago, Bela Ben Gershon, who is in charge of emergency preparedness for mental health at the Ministry of Health, said that the ministry is not prepared to provide mental health care to victims of anxiety in the event of a general war. As all anxiety victims actually seek out treatment, the reality on the ground may be much more serious than even currently assessed.
ReachMore, founded six months ago with the vision to develop an application that provides treatment for trauma victims, tries to address these issues with their new product, an application that offers mental support to people suffering from trauma-induced anxiety. Instead of a psychologist, the treatment will be given by a completely automatic therapist-simulating system, "without human contact" that will be able to reach large audiences in real time. The goal is to offer assistance in dealing with the traumatic event immediately upon exposure to it and during the first month following it, to reduce the chance of victims entering posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Bringing about cognitive change
The app is based on a study by psychologist Dr. Jacob Zimmerman, one of the company's four founding partners. Zimmerman took a look at the effectiveness of automated online therapy for anxiety disorder that relied on a cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) protocol. His study showed that such online treatment were able to achieve similar and even better results when compared with traditional, face-to-face psychological treatment.
The unique advantage of automated online therapy programs is that the patient follows the treatment plan at home and according to their own pace, and that they can review previous stages and information they have learned along the program whenever they choose. One of the main disadvantages to such automated protocols is that without a therapist there is no person to notice the patient's body language and responses to the treatment, nor can the program adjust its course accordingly.
The app mainly treats anxiety through techniques that work to induce cognitive change. The app teaches techniques of sedation, such as breathing or muscle relaxation exercises, and offers a therapeutic program according to the answers the user selects.
A past in combat, a future in posttraumatic healing
In addition to Zimmerman, who is a mental health professional, the company's founders include Vardi, a former sales manager at Cisco Israel and Amsterdam, who founded the Caring car rental venture and served as a combat soldier and commander in the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit; Uri Hacohen, another former Sayeret Matkal alum and CEO of the BDO company, which assists small and medium businesses on behalf of the Ministry of Economy; and Yonatan Goffman, VP of Technologies, a former F-15 pilot who has a Bachelor's and Master's degree in computer science from the Technion Institute of Technology.
Reachmore is hoping to get to a point where they can offer each client a personal program that develops automatically, in accordance to their reactions to treatment. "We'll be able to reach you mainly through the authorities," explains Gidi Vardi, the company's CEO. "The easiest way for that to happen will be for you to get a text message that says: an incident took place near your location—download the app here. After downloading the application, it will explain in a very clear and gradual manner the treatment process, which will last for 30 days."
There are currently several tools available on the local market for self-help through an application and without the direct involvement of a therapist, offering treatment for such ailments as phobias and social anxieties, though not for those dealing with a traumatic event. The US goverment runs a similar program to support veterans, though it is intended to treat people with full-blown PTSD.
To what extent is post-trauma an Israeli disorder?
"It's a global problem. In the United States, there are 107 disasters, including natural disasters and terror incidents that are declared by the federal government as a disaster, every year. That comes out to one trauma event every three days. Israel is considered very central in dealing with trauma, since we are saturated with difficult events. There's a lot of knowledge here and a lot of people who have researched and studied the issue, and so we use a lot of knowledge."
What is your business model?
"Towns and governments fund treatments post difficult events. We are selling the license to the app, making it available for it to exist for a municipality or government, plus an additional payment for (personal—ed). We also tailor the application for specific events—dealing with a fire isn't the same as dealing with a terrorist attack."
What is your social added value?
"The added social value here is reaching a lot more people, and we estimate we can reach 1,000 times more people following an event ... After the attack in Sarona, 80 people called the hot line. This is nothing compared to the number of people who suffered and still suffer from this event because they haven't received the right treatment.
"With the help of our tool," promises Vardi, "We can reach 80,000 people after such an event."
(Translated and edited by Gahl Becker)