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Startup's 24/7 services will include AI-powered chatbots to help more Chinese cope with mental health issues, amid lack of therapists

In 2007, serial entrepreneur Xu Yingqi began suffering from severe auditory hallucinations, imagining that all his employees were avoiding him. Huge pressure from work and interpersonal relationships made his condition even worse.

His childhood friend and psychology professor Zhu Haoliang immediately gave Xu talk therapy, which helped him. Moved by his personal experience, Xu went on to found mental health services platform Yidianling in August 2015, with the Wenzhou University professor as Vice-President. The startup received initial funding of over US$2m in 2016 and secured an undisclosed amount of Series A++ funds from Suzhou's Bioventure in May 2019.

It's estimated that 700m people have mental health issues in China. Over 287,000 commit suicide every year. China has around 1m counselors at present, and more than 2m social workers and volunteers, said CEO Xu. There's an acute shortage of mental health specialists, with over 430,000 professional vacancies waiting to be filled.

In China, there are just five therapists available for every 1m people; compare this ratio with the US, where there's one therapist per 1,000 people. Although one counselor can serve a maximum of 34 patients each day, the current supply of counselors in China is still insufficient to help those in need of mental healthcare services.

Yidianling and its competitors are looking for innovative ways to fill this widening market gap. Plans are underway to use artificial intelligence in practice. Chatbots can help users to navigate their emotions in the near future, said Xu.

Market potential

Key players like Yixinli were already servicing the local mental healthcare market when Yidianling came into the picture. Founded in 2011, Yixinli is now focusing more on the provision of psychology courses and training. "Before Yidianling, the majority of online counseling services were provided by independent therapists, counselors or psychology clinics," explained Professor Zhu.

Yidianling stands out with some unique advantages, CEO Xu added. Speedy services at more affordable prices, a higher level of professionalism and supervision. The company policy is to give unconditional refunds to users who are dissatisfied with the services provided. Xu believes that it's important to create a platform that allows counselors to focus on their expertise and the users, without worrying about business models.

Yidianling's 24/7 services include help hotlines, Q&A, free preliminary chats and online counseling. Users are matched to a qualified counselor or specialist within 10 minutes. Customers can also choose from over 10,000 counselors according to their popularity ratings, specialism, work experience and academic background. Some counselors charge an hourly fee of about RMB 100 to make it more affordable to everyone who need expert advice. In 2016, Yidianling opened its first bricks-and-mortar mental health clinic in Hangzhou, with more in the pipeline.

Although the mental healthcare market in China is worth US$9.4bn, the industry has to work extra hard to overcome the social stigma associated with mental illnesses.

"About half of US citizens have been to therapy sessions, it's like catching a cold. In China, people still regard visiting a counselor as an embarrassment," said Xu.

In the US, it's common for people to attend therapy sessions covered by medical insurance. Social workers are often based at universities and local communities to cater to the mental health needs of students and residents. In China, the mental health expenditure per capita is less than US$2, compared with US$60 in leading Western countries.

Talent acquisition

Grabbing a share of China's growing mental healthcare market is a race against time. The number of qualified counselors based at a platform is a crucial factor for competition in this industry, said Xu. But it's not easy to find, recruit, train and manage so many therapy professionals. 

Less than 25% of psychology students choose to work as counselors after graduation in China. This is partly due to the relatively lower social recognition and understanding of the occupation. In addition, fresh graduates don't have the required levels of work experience, knowledge and expertise to satisfy the industry's professional quality standards. Many are newly qualified with inadequate hands-on experience and expertise.

Faced with the shortage of high-caliber professionals, Yidianling has decided to provide on-the-job coaching and training for junior counselors. The company collaborates with professional institutions and university professors to design training courses for new recruits and trainees. A certain number of community service and free online service hours are performed by the trainees before graduating as qualified practitioners. All trainees are allocated a professional mentor for work supervision and professional assessments.

Some 2,000 counselors have signed up each year since Yidianling was founded. Today, it has over 10,000 specialists on board, compared with 2,000 at US counterpart BetterHelp. Several of Yidianling's popular counselors earn over US$100,000 a year. Tapping into the fast-growing demand for mental health specialists, Yidianling has expanded steadily at 2030% CMGR. The platform has 3m registered members and 40,000 monthly active users. Many of the sufferers are aged 2040 years old, a trend also present in Western communities.

In China, it's estimated that 16m people with mental health issues may need hospitalization, another 80m need medication and 250m require therapy. Yidianling will continue to significantly enlarge the talent pool and lower its counseling fees to make the services more accessible to a larger number of users, Xu said. AI-powered chatbots may be the fastest way to bring on-demand healthcare services to the masses.

Edited by Wang Xiao'e , Suzanne Soh

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