Singapore-based Intellect wants to lower barriers to mental health support in Asia

Taking care of your emotional well-being is as important as physical health, but in Asia, the topic is often stigmatized. Intellect, a Singapore-based startup, wants to make the idea of mental health more approachable with an app that offers self-guided exercises based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

The company develops consumer and enterprise versions of the app (for employers to offer as a benefit) and now has users in several countries, including Singapore, Indonesia, India and China.

Since its beta launch earlier this year, co-founder and CEO Theodoric Chew says Intellect has signed up about 10,000 users, as well as 10 companies ranging in size from startups to large corporations. The startup plans to launch Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesian versions, and is currently working with researchers to develop localized versions of its exercises, which include guided journaling, behavioral exercises and “rescue sessions” with short audio clips about topics like stress, low self-esteem, emotional burnout and sleep issues.

The company has raised a pre-seed round that included Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that supports entrepreneurship.

In the United States and Europe, there is a growing roster of self-help apps that teach users coping strategies for common mental health issues, including Headspace, MoodKit, Moodnotes, Sanvello and Happify, to name a few examples. But the space is still nascent in Asia.

Before launching Intellect, Chew was head of affiliate growth and content marketing at Voyagin, a travel-booking marketplace that was acquired by Rakuten in 2015. He became interested in the mental health space because of his own experiences.

“I’ve been to therapy quite a bit for anxiety and in Asia, there is still a lot of social stigma and there aren’t a lot of tools. A lot of work is being done in the U.S. and Europe, but in Asia, it’s still developing,” Chew told TechCrunch.

He added that “most people shy away when you mention mental health. We see a lot of that in Asia, but if we frame it in other ways, like how to work on personal problems, like low self-esteem or confidence, we see a huge shift in people opening up.”

Intellect was developed with feedback from mental healthcare professionals, but Chew emphasizes it is not a replacement for professional therapy. Instead, it is meant to give people an accessible way to take care of their mental health, especially in cultures where there is still a lot of stigma around the topic. The app’s exercises address low mood and anxiety, but also common workplace and interpersonal issues, like developing assertiveness and handling criticism.

The enterprise version of the app can be customized with exercises tailored to people in different industries. It is meant for startups and other SMEs that don’t have the kind of employee assistance programs (EAP) that bigger companies can offer, which often include mental health resources, like support hotlines and referrals to mental healthcare providers.

The consumer app usually charges a flat monthly fee that gives unlimited access to all its features, but Intellect is making it free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eventually, the startup hopes to develop a network of mental health professionals that users can connect to within the app.

“The way we approach this is that therapy is not solely for clinically depressed people, but for everyone,” said Chew. “In three to five years, we want to make therapy commonplace to address every day problems. We want to tackle more clinical issues as well, but we believe most people can benefit from framing it as a way to tackle every day issues using CBT-based methods.”