Drew Barvir, MBA ’23: Harnessing AI to Support Youth Mental Health and Safety

For this Stanford Impact Founder Fellow, artificial intelligence will provide a new way to catch early signs of mental health challenges.

October 18, 2023

| by Sarah Murray

Drew Barvir, MBA ’23 | Saul Bromberger

These days, many people worry about the effect of social media on the minds of young people. However, Drew Barvir is using artificial intelligence to turn the technology itself into part of the solution. His platform, Sonar Mental Health, identifies key moments during online use that could signal the need for intervention, equipping families to support the mental health and safety of their children.

Sonar’s application analyzes the online and social media activity of young people — with their consent and that of their responsible adults — and provides timely notifications and support recommendations should it detect concerning behavior. Using AI analytics, along with human expertise, results to date suggest that Sonar can identify mental health challenges with up to 95% accuracy. This means support can be provided before a tragedy occurs.

Barvir has experienced this kind of tragedy himself: Six years ago, he lost his mother to suicide. He lost a teammate to suicide 11 years ago, and, like most of us, he has several family members and friends who struggle with mental illness.

On arrival at Stanford GSB in the fall of 2021, Barvir attended dozens of social events and started forming many new relationships. Yet it was a conversation he had with classmate Gabe Moynihan that stood out. Not only did Moynihan, who is now his cofounder, share his passion for improving support for mental health, but he had also experienced mental illness through his own family.

Their very personal insights into the effects of mental illness taught Barvir and Moynihan something important: that addressing youth mental health is highly complex. While most people want to support the mental health of their friends and family, they often lack the time and training, and few have the insights into their online lives, so are unable to tell when help is needed.

To address this complex challenge, Sonar’s cofounders are bringing together individuals with a wide range of knowledge and expertise. The company now has a youth advisory board made up of high school students, a clinical advisory board that includes adolescent mental healthcare professionals, and a scientific advisory board that includes specialist researchers in mental health and health tech.

Barvir approaches this work with humility. “I’m not a clinician, software developer or data scientist,” he says. “So it’s recognizing that and building a talented team. We’d be nowhere without each of our contributors.”

The Problem

Evidence is growing that the online world can increase the sense of isolation and expose young people to everything from cyberbullying to the low self-esteem engendered when they compare themselves to others online.

By analyzing the young person’s online activity, Sonar identifies early signs of challenges such as depression, anxiety, or risk of harm before they become serious.

In fact, in May 2023, the U.S. surgeon general issued a new advisory on the effects of social media on the mental health of young people, citing research that showed spending more than three hours a day on social media doubled the risk for adolescents of experiencing depression and anxiety.

But while lengthy exposure to social media is part of the problem, the real risks come from the type of content young people encounter while online. For example, the surgeon general’s advisory also cites a study in which 64% of adolescents said they were “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content through social media.

Added to this, says Barvir, are the growing pressures facing young people — pressure to do well in school and succeed in sports, pressure to be popular and have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. “This level of competition and the tendency to compare yourself to the curated, perfect lives you see online continues to increase,” he says. “And at a time when you’re trying to find yourself.”

These pressures contribute to a growing problem: One in six Americans aged 6-17 experiences a mental health disorder every year, according to the National Mental Health Alliance. Yet they face a number of barriers to accessing the care they need.

First, seeking and paying for help is not easy. Nor is knowing what help is appropriate and will work, explains Barvir.

However, an even bigger problem is that it can be hard for friends and family to identify moments at which a young person’s illness needs intervention before a crisis arises. And young people themselves may often be unaware that they are experiencing mental health challenges.

“A combination of all those factors keeps young people from seeking and getting the treatment they may need” says Barvir. In fact, almost 60% of young people with major depression receive no form or treatments or support, according to Mental Health America.

The price of failing to address the problem is high — both financial and personal. Some $280 billion was spent on mental healthcare in the U.S. in 2020, yet suicide is among the leading causes of death among youth (after accidents and homicide), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Solution

Having spent much of his life grappling with the pain of watching friends and family suffer the consequences of mental illness, Barvir knew he wanted to do something to improve mental health outcomes for others. However, the idea for Sonar was not one that arrived in a sudden moment of clarity. To be sure of finding the right solution, the cofounders pored over more than a decade of published research and conducted more than 100 conversations with a wide range of individuals with knowledge of the issue, including young people, parents, mental health clinicians, school administrators, and teachers.

What became clear was that, among the many support apps and adolescent care providers that have emerged in recent years, none offered an easily accessible package that required no change in behavior. “Many apps and programs have initially high uptake, but long-term retention is challenging,” he says. “There are wait times for seeing a therapist, crisis helplines aren’t always able to respond, and most young people would rather spend time on social media than on a wellness app.”

Sonar aims to fill these gaps with an innovative application that meets young people where they are: online. And since support from friends and family has been shown to be highly effective, Sonar aims to help young people build a support network and equip them to seek that support in times of need.

By analyzing the young person’s online activity, Sonar identifies early signs of challenges such as depression, anxiety or risk of harm before they become serious. It then notifies the person’s support network and offers resources and recommendations.

The team is still working on setting equitable pricing models to ensure that young people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can access Sonar, and is developing ways of getting the word out, from partnerships with school districts to personal referrals and digital marketing.

However, Barvir is certain of one thing: combining predictive insights and mental health support will be essential in order to tackle a growing problem. Rather than trying to fix emotional or psychological problems once their severity has caused a crisis, Sonar is using the power of technology to offer something that is rare in the field of mental healthcare: preventive care.

The Innovator

Barvir has plenty of experience in the field of mental healthcare innovation. As a volunteer youth board member for a hospital, he advocated and raised funds for mental health initiatives. At one employer, he launched a mental health employee resource group. He also acted as an advisor to a youth mental health nonprofit that was launching a new digital service.

As an investor, he reviewed dozens of mental healthcare companies, investing in six. He also joined a startup called Creyos (formerly Cambridge Brain Sciences) and remains an advisor to the company, which helps healthcare providers and researchers to measure and manage brain health by providing them with cognitive assessments and health questionnaires.

“I have experience building companies,” he says. “I have a wide view of the mental healthcare innovation landscape, and a deep network in the field.”

However, what really kicked things off was a cup of coffee and a conversation with Moynihan. “Both of us had come back to school with the goal of building a business in the adolescent mental healthcare space,” he says. “It was something we were both very passionate about.”

At the end of that meeting, the two agreed to start researching the topic and were soon scheduling calls with children, parents, schools, adolescent therapists, and psychiatrists. They received an Impact Design Immersion Fellowship from Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation, made progress over the summer, raised some funds, and things “snowballed from there,” explains Barvir. In addition to its two cofounders, Sonar now has five full-time and six part-time team members.

Barvir has high ambitions for Sonar and the positive impact it could have on the lives of young people. “We believe mental health can be measured like physical health, so by leveraging the data we have now and in the future, we will be able to predict changes in people’s mental health status and make tailored recommendations,” he says. “Our vision is to empower preventative mental healthcare — leading to a happier, healthier, more productive society.”

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