Lysn and learn: telehealth startup targets rural mental health

Dr Jonathan King finds himself at the forefront of a seismic shift in improving rural mental health.

When Dr Jonathan King discovered people outside Australia's major cities could not access mental health care he decided he had to do something about it, and Lysn was born.

By Martin Lenehan

When Canadian-born surgeon Dr Jonathan King came to Australia 14 years ago to study at Bond University, he could scarcely have imagined he’d find himself at the forefront of a seismic shift in the treatment of mental health.

After working as a surgical registrar in locations including Bendigo, Canberra, Cairns, Mackay, Sydney and the Gold Coast, King launched telehealth start-up Lysn in November 2017 with three psychologists.

Less than two years later, Lysn employs 265 psychologists nationally and has partnered with 53 general practice (GP) clinics to broaden the service.

“Australia is kicking goals in terms of awareness of mental health, and the rest of the world is now playing catch-up,” King says. “In the 1920s, you had an industrial revolution and now we are going through the wellness revolution. Within the next decade every school and workplace will have some sort of mandatory wellbeing training or support [service].”

Statistics from the Black Dog Institute show one in five Australians aged 16–85 experience mental illness each year, but 54 per cent do not access treatment. Lysn is working towards eliminating barriers to obtaining mental health advice.

King realised access to mental health experts was a major issue in rural and regional areas while working in Cairns.

“We had operated on a patient, but they were struggling with other issues and I wanted to refer them to community services, but my intern told me it would be a seven-month wait before an appointment,” he says.

“This stayed on my mind, and a few months later I had written up a business plan to offer better support for regional and rural GPs.” King’s aim was to provide an online mental health platform that connects people seeking help with qualified Australian mental health professionals.

“I was still working full-time as a surgical registrar, so I cut back to part-time to get this off the ground,” he says. “It was fortunate I was earning a solid wage, but tech development burns through the cash so I sold my house on the Gold Coast and we have bootstrapped the whole way.

“I had a choice of taking funding, but we wanted to build something that was helping people regardless of financial return initially. We wanted to build a patient-centric service rather than being told ‘this is where it monetises the most so you should focus on this’.”

He says access to mental healthcare experts can be one of the biggest barriers to people improving their mental health.

“By providing easier and confidential access to a range of psychologists, much of the stigma around just visiting a psychologist is taken away.”

Lysn’s success has allowed King to expand to create a platform that allows people to take ownership of their wellbeing.

“Not everyone is ready to talk to a psychologist, so the new platform and education modules mean people take control of their own mental health,” he says. “Insight is a huge factor. Some people just want to read about the issues that concern them, and if we can educate them properly, they may not even need a psychologist.”

Throughout, King has never wavered from the mantra, “you talk, we listen”.

The 35-year-old says that previously the expectation was that the doctor or clinician was always right, but Lysn’s mission is to make patients feel empowered, and that’s how he came up with the name.

“The slogan ‘you talk, we listen’ [lysn] has driven us from the start, and I just started playing around with the word ‘listen’ to make it shorter for a logo,” he says. “I wanted a four-letter word and that’s how we came up with Lysn.

“If you get diagnosed with cancer, we have a set of guidelines and plans for you to follow post-surgery, but with mental health we don’t have that, so I took it on as a challenge to bring continuing care to mental health.”

One Piece of advice

“Teams will make or break an idea. An average idea with an amazing team will succeed more often than a dysfunctional team with an amazing, ground-breaking idea.”

Read next: 5 ways to discuss mental health in the workplace

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