March 12, 2015

Communal support for mental health issues grows online

Heimo offers a support community for individuals with mental health issues.
Heimo offers a support community for individuals with mental health issues.
Heimo

Online community Heimo brings people together online to assist one another with a variety of issues related to mental wellbeing.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization, up to 30 per cent of the global population has suffered some kind of mental health issue during the past year. However, given the stigma attached to mental illness in many cultures, at least two-thirds of these individuals will remain untreated.

Seeking to stem the flow is Heimo.

“Heimo is a mental wellbeing community where people can share their thoughts safely and anonymously online, and find their peer support,” explains CEO Jarno Alastalo. “People can also connect with healthcare professionals here. The name comes from ‘tribe’, which is what heimo means in English.”

Heimo offers a support community for individuals with mental health issues.

Heimo offers a support community for individuals with mental health issues.

Heimo

This element of congregation is integral to Heimo’s success, with the community consisting of various ‘tribes’ of people validating emotions by discussing shared experiences.

Significantly, using real names is not a prerequisite of joining the community, removing a considerable hurdle impeding many who seek to express their inner turmoil.

Tribal roots

The idea for Heimo was born when two Finnish psychologists, Kristian Kurikka and Johannes Hovi, realised that there is an extremely strong stigma attached to talking about mental wellbeing. In short, people are concerned about being perceived as ‘crazy’ if they mention their mental health issues. Kurikka and Hovi decided to create services for mental wellbeing without a threshold: 24/7 services without stigma or the need to go somewhere to seek assistance.

The pair was intrigued and began to think of ways to facilitate an easier pathway for those seeking help. A phone service was their first solution, but their clientele was hesitant to pay for it. After moving to video services, they were then drawn to the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet, but wondered how could they harness it to achieve their goal.

Enter Alastalo, the brains behind one of the largest online discussion forums worldwide, Suomi24, who recognised that peer support within an easily accessible service was the key to their success. A tightly woven community would create rock solid foundations upon which the network could grow and thus help keep operating costs at a minimum.

“The power of an established community can help your situation much faster than if you call a doctor and he doesn’t answer,” Alastalo explains, pointing out also that healthcare professionals can be also found on Heimo.

A strong sense of shared support would also act as a natural repellent for Internet trolls. When such damaging disturbances emerge, the community would eject them before they can inflict any real damage.

A rewarding visit

After securing initial funding from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation last year, Heimo has been fine-tuning its operations in the interim. Currently participating in a closed beta version are around 20 healthcare organisations and groups who already have peer support groups in the live world.

Heimo CEO Jarno Alastalo was the former leader of the largest online community in Finland, Suomi24.

Heimo CEO Jarno Alastalo was the former leader of the largest online community in Finland, Suomi24.

Heimo

Interestingly, gamification is being explored as a way to strengthen the tight-knit community, as a means to further encourage user loyalty and involvement.

“We are building a system where people are rewarded based on if they have been commenting, writing or listening,” Alastalo explains. “We are talking about having ‘aura’ or ‘karma’.”

Monetising the service is the next step before the service goes live this summer. Alongside company sponsorships, a variety of chargeable extra services will be on offer, such as appointments with psychologists via the video service Meedoc. Alastalo is keen to introduce what he calls the “Spotify model” of subscription services for users to access such extra services. The open community will always be free.

Once all the pieces are in place, plans are also afoot to expand Heimo beyond Finland, in the process diluting the global stigma attached to mental health.

“We believe that community services are the best way to help most of the people in the world,” Alastalo says.

Text: James O’Sullivan

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