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Online platform Beacon aims to improve accessibility to mental-health resources

Seven years ago, Bay Street executive Sam Duboc struggled with depression.

Like many type-A personalities, the private-equity investor initially tried to gut it out, treating the problem by ignoring it. Not surprisingly, the approach didn't work; it took professional help to get the co-founder of EdgeStone Capital partners and Loyalty Group Inc. back on course.

Inspired by his own experience, Mr. Duboc dove into mental-health research that showed one in five Canadians suffer from mental illness each year, and that 500,000 people miss work each week due to these issues. In addition, countless others are what Mr. Duboc calls "the walking wounded," showing up for work, but unable to perform at their full potential.

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He found that mental illness is the No. 1 source of disability claims and costs the economy in excess of $50-billion annually. And he found that many doctors treat mental illness with a pill: Canadians are the highest per capita users of psychiatric medication in the world.

Out of that deep dive, Mr. Duboc created a company called Beacon that wants to use technology to revolutionize health care in much the same way Amazon used online shopping to shake up retailing.

"There's an urgent need to make mental-health-care solutions accessible and affordable in this country," says Mr. Duboc, Beacon's executive chairman. The Beacon platform is being launched in Ontario on Tuesday, in conjunction with World Mental Health Day. A national rollout is planned for January.

The depression treatment that worked for Mr. Duboc is known as cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, a proven approach that helps patients devise coping strategies for overcoming issues. Beacon takes CBT sessions that patients traditionally get in a therapist's office and puts them online. Mr. Duboc pointed out that being online helps remove the stigma related to treatment and eliminates the logistical nightmare of getting to a therapist's office.

There's a significant amount of research showing delivering mental-health services digitally is as effective as meeting face to face. It's certainly cheaper.

A single hour-long visit to a therapist can run to $200 or more; there are typically long waiting lists for medical professionals. Beacon's entire program, which includes diagnosis, a series of treatment modules and online access to therapists, costs $500 to $800; Mr. Duboc estimates that translates into a 75-per-cent reduction in the cost of treating an illness such as depression or anxiety.

The online treatment approach was developed by Toronto-based CBT Associates, one of the largest private mental-health businesses in Canada, with more than 70 therapists at six offices. Mr. Duboc is an investor in the business, which was launched in 2002.

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"Technology has changed the way we live our daily lives, so why shouldn't this also include the way we access mental-health treatment?" said Dr. Peter Farvolden, who runs the medical side of Beacon and co-founded CBT Associates.

Beacon is not alone in introducing technology into the delivery of mental-health services: Big fish such as Apple Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. are actively playing in this space.

But the Toronto-based company has an early mover advantage in the domestic market from links to large corporations – executives from Rogers Communications Inc., Brookfield Asset Management Inc. and Loblaw Companies Ltd. are on its advisory board – and ties to top mental-health practitioners at Toronto's SickKids Hospital and the University of Regina.

Beacon is initially being pitched to companies and insurers as a way to augment their employee assistance and benefits plans, along with universities that are struggling to find a cost-effective way of helping students deal with mental-health issues.

The Globe and Mail's features writer Erin Anderssen talks about her ten-year journey covering mental health stories in Canada and how the national conversation has gone from stigma to solutions. This video is part of The Globe - WE Learning Hub.
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