FitTech Insider

What role will mental health tech play in the US market, Emma Barry?

Meditation apps, on-demand coaching or mood tracking. The market for mental health techs continues to grow. And not without reason: Unfortunately, the cases of mental illness in the US are also increasing frighteningly. Can technologies be the solution to loneliness and mental diseases in the future?

Emma Barry is a global fitness expert who advises on the innovative trends, technologies and talent in fitness. Emma is co-founder of Good Soul Hunting - a boutique search agency for targeted health and wellness brands - and Senior Advisor for The FitTech Company USA. As a founding member of group fitness giant Les Mills, former director of luxury lifestyle brand Equinox, and advisor to the fastest growing value-based fitness chain in Europe - Basic-Fit - Emma knows exactly what's happening next in fitness.

FitTech Club: Emma Barry about United States of FitTech

At the recent exclusive member-only event, we were talking about the US fittech market - and what trends will dominate 2022. Our Club member Jon Brady (COO Midtown Athletic Clubs since 2013) and US advisors Emma Barry, Stefan Sillner and Eric Malzone discussed the future of subsegments in the fittech market, such as #femtech or #gymtech. Spoiler: #mentalhealthtech will be huge!

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Emma is the international bestselling author of Building a Badass Boutique - Your 10-Touch Journey to Designing a Fitness Studio that Rocks - and is a regular contributor to leading industry publications, podcasts and webinars. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and moderator for business forums, trend panels and hybrid events.

Emma's impatience with the status quo, infectious energy, and innovative flair awaken and activate the great in others. She loves digging for breakthrough insights and setting souls on fire. For FitTech Insider, Emma provides a deep dive into the Mental Health market and how it will evolve in the US in 2022.

Emma, I read that about 50 million people in the United States are affected by mental illnesses. It's a frightening high number, who or which companies will benefit in 2022 from this catastrophe?
That's a big number. And we also see that globally, in this $4.4 trillion market, about $181 billion is spent on mental health. So when you think about who's going to benefit from this, it's people who have answers for people who feel alone or misunderstood, or overwhelmed, or just not operating at their optimum. I think businesses need meditation and mindfulness as part of their remit for happiness and sustainable productivity. We even saw the fitness industry when we were a small part of the bigger health and fitness industry. But if you look at it, even the pure exercise offerings have expanded into yoga, tai chi, meditation and mindfulness. And within meditation, there are subsets such as Focus, Stress, and Release. One of the leading meditation apps, "Calm," leans into celebrity voices and wonderful peace-inducing visuals to soothe you. Sleep hygiene is a big topic. Look at big brands like Whoop analyzing all elements of recovery - stress and readiness for the day analyzing strain and elements like sleep. And if you look at Tom Brady, who just recently retired from the NFL, and you talk to these great athletes, they don't just talk about how hard they train. They talk about how intelligently they recover. And I think that's a really interesting topic that's certainly dominating the airwaves here.

You mentioned that the market for mental health apps is expected to reach a couple of billion dollars in the next couple of years. What kind of new technological features do you expect to come this year?
I think we see the efforts of the health and fitness industry, pop culture, and influencers combining. But we're also seeing medical technology and scientific fitness where we're getting much deeper diagnoses about ourselves. We know that Apple's big gift to the world is health: we have a hospital and a gym on our wrist and on our phone. And we’ll be managing metrics in real time, beyond just heart rate to blood pressure and oxygen levels. And we expect those diagnoses to become more and more in-depth. So I think it's kind of a mix of everything that's interesting to people, what's trending, and what the medical community is doing. And that's what we saw at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show: how one of the medical industries that is using nanotechnology is introducing all these new ways to bring sensors close to the body, close to the bloodstream, to monitor key functions. So I think that's the direction that development is going to move. And people are interested in it because they know they're stressed, they know they're overworked. They know they need to balance their work-life balance, and some of these tools will help them do that.

Which is the most underestimated target group in terms of mental health tech?
I think it will always be the same ones who are underserved. I think it's the poor, the misunderstood, the disabled. And yet, I have to be careful when I say that those who spend the most on mental illness and mental wellness also have the most solutions. When I look at the leading wellness companies or countries in the world, the United States, where we live, is right up there with Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and Japan. These are really thriving economies. So it really goes hand in hand with the quality of life and the money that people make. If you look at the per capita ratio, spend - the U.S. is up there behind Switzerland at number one per capita, and Iceland in second. I witness a lot of the poor here on the streets of LA with mental illness there but we also have many of the celebrities and the rich and famous here in L.A., who have also spoken very openly about their mental health challenges. So privilege does not make us immune. But if you have money, it’s easier to find help by being able to afford subscriptions, prescriptions, phones and therapists.  

Speaking of target groups, do you think there's also a specific or demographic target group that could be more interesting for companies in terms of mental health?
Of course, absolutely. And I think that's the elderly. It's the aging of which we're all a part of that cohort. So again, if I look back at the Consumer Electronics Show, there's a lot of investment going into how to build a life that's more fulfilling, and longer. We've got everything from exoskeletons, which are allowing us to function for longer by enabling us to continue to lift load and enhance human capability. Another key topic is loneliness. Many of the keynotes in Las Vegas spoke to overcoming the pressures of the pandemic where we stopped moving and socializing. And those are two real killers for the elderly, especially if they struggle with technology. I think there's this mental origami conversation that's always going on, you've got everyone doing Sudoku and all of these things that keep them engaged and keep mixing with young people. So definitely the elderly, I'd say or as we age, people are wanting to hold on to all of the functions and live not only longer but more fulfilling lives.

Now do you think tech can help against solitude?
Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction from being digitally connected. A lot of other people are like, "Oh, it's not the same, we need to be together." I kind of get it both ways. Many of our parents were forced into digital adoption to stay connected through Zoom and other platforms. Another developing technology is robots and robotics - and the art of interaction. There is a lot of technology in that space. Because when you're engaged, you don't feel lonely, you're talking to something or in something, and I don't want to say that just talking to a robot is enough. But there may be some things that can support you to have meaningful conversations, maybe meet with other people in chat rooms, maybe get answers to questions. If you can't cope with technology, I see our children who have a very different relationship with technology from birth than our older people, than our parents who were literally without technology until recently. And there's a lot of people in the baby boomer generation and beyond.

Of course, there will be solutions to that, because we have created such a problem for ourselves. We know that. But now we seek someone who has an elegant solution to solve for it. And I believe it will come. - Emma Barry

Speaking of kids, how do you rate the problems that the kids are cured because of the pandemic? And how could tech help them there to augment their mental health?
That's an interesting question. Because we spend, and the Wellness Institute released another report yesterday, on average more than seven hours a day on screen time. If you look at our kids, that's a very vulnerable category, because they're experiencing life at a pace and without the maturity to deal with it. So we're seeing cyber bullying, we're looking at suicide rates, we're witnessing self-injury, we're looking at their ability to access things, the glamorization of some of these difficult teenage things that we go through. I think there has to be more solutions to curb these negative effects. We're parents, our kids are so much smarter with technology. It's so hard to keep up with what they’re up to. They outsmart us. They have secret chat rooms, they have codes, parents are watching (PAW). I mean, they have the whole program. The Kardashians and all the filters and all those things, it's not real. And if you try to live up to that, you're going to fail. And that's where a lot of the problems come in, "I'm not worthy," the overwhelm, and the noise. I think there needs to be tech for good in the future, and it's interesting that a lot of social media people who are actually executives don't let their kids on social media or only allow them to play for an hour a day. So there's a control on that, and I think that's probably the biggest message that you can use for good, because they can learn exponentially faster. I think education is going to see an absolute revolution. We don't have to have a four-year degree. My kids can become experts over a weekend, inhaling TikTok content. I think there are those kinds of revolutions on the positive side. And then I think it's about dealing with the criminal behavior out there - the hackers, the fraud and identity stealing - all infiltrating young people's lives.

But do you think there will be new solutions for these young problems facing their mental and health problems like tech? Will there be tech solutions for a problem that is perhaps tech infused?
I think it's both right, it'll take a few years, but there will have to be technical solutions. If you look back in history, there's always someone or a business that goes after solving a problem. And I believe we’re on our way to doing that. I think about the conversations we've had recently about the metaverse, and people are so concerned that we're just going to go into the metaverse and never come out. But when you talk to the more advanced brands that are trying to create this continuum where you dive into the metaverse to have that immersive experience and then come back to real life to have a more human one.  That's the way we have to look at it. Our kids are tech natives. So this is where they're going to look for referrals, friends, networks, and things to do. But can we also encourage them to go outside and hike, meet in person, and learn old school skills? Of course, there will be solutions to that, because we have created such a problem for ourselves. We know that. But now we seek someone who has an elegant solution to solve for it. And I believe it will come.

What else will shape the mental health market in the United States this year?
In my work in the talent space, one of the things we've seen with the ‘Great Resignation’ is a lot of people just saying "I've had enough, I don't want this anymore, I'm going to leave and do something else." I think that's going to have an impact on mental well-being as well, because people are reordering and reprioritizing their work-life balance. A lot of people are saying, "I don't want to go to the office more than three days a week,” or “I want to be able to do my work from anywhere in the world”. Or I actually do want to go back into the office so I can separate the different aspects of my life. But when I do go back to the office, I just want to focus on the collective things we should do together - brainstorm, problem-solve and interact. Mental well-being tools and support is also something people are asking for in their benefits packages along with salary and freedom. And there is the added assumption that I get to personalize my package. So overall, hyper-personalization and work-life balance are two massive trends we are feeling here. 

Very interesting. What factors will then shape the mental health tech US market this year? To what level and why?
I think the tracking of the statistics. I mean, for the last two years, it feels like the only stat we’ve been tracking is COVID numbers but we are beginning to realize the amount of digitization has happened across the spectrum of our whole lives. We are in a different world - most businesses have sharpened operations, tightened their CRM to some degree, made different decisions, acquired different partners, opened different stores. We're seeing a real settling down period, and I think will continue to do so over the next two years. So other numbers I expect to see include - the mental state of our kids, suicide rates, because certainly during the pandemic there have been tough times where so much was taken from us with additional stresses such as health, fincances and confinement. So I think we're going to start exploring true health and happiness, true well-being and what makes a well-rounded person and what sustains us in our lives.