Fortune Well April 15, 2023
When Brian Femminella joined the military at age 17, he found camaraderie by serving alongside others.
He also observed how pervasive symptoms of mental health problems were among his fellow soldiers and officers; he saw a soldier lose his memory from post-traumatic stress at the beginning of his service.
Seeing how people’s overall well-being diminished highlighted the grave “struggles that exist behind the uniform,” Femminella said last year in a TedTalk about how to manage mental health symptoms using technology.
Many people Femminella met and worked with, especially from marginalized groups, contended with their mental health behind closed doors out of fear it would elicit judgment from others. It struck a chord for him on a personal note; as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Femminella faced homophobic attacks that affected his mental health growing up, he says.
The isolating experience catalyzed his military enrollment—and, later, his desire to find new ways to address the growing mental health crisis, especially for those who lack access to traditional mental health tools like therapy.
Along with co-founder Travis Chen, 24, Femminella, 23, launched SoundMind in November 2021. Users of the platform have access to music therapy to help address their stress, anxiety, and trauma. SoundMind also tracks users’ mood over time. This year, Femminella and Chen have expanded their business and have raised $2.25 million in seed money—onboarding almost 85,000 users across 30 organizations, including schools and colleges, this quarter.
“The platform is aimed primarily at students for mind-management and social-emotional learning,” Femminella tells Fortune, adding that along with the officers he serves alongside, youth are particularly vulnerable to damaging mental health outcomes.
Youth have faced alarming rates of anxiety and depression. Over 10% of youth have severe depression that impacts their school and home lives. Suicide rates have risen by over 50% from 2007 to 2018, and over half of youth with major depression do not receive help.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden sounded the alarm on youth mental health during his State of the Union Address, something seldom done on the national stage. “When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them greater access to mental health care at their schools,” he said.
In a December survey, parents and administrators reported feeling that solutions to youth mental health have not come to the forefront: 60% of administrators said young people’s mental health remains the same or has worsened compared to a year ago.
Youth deserve more, the founders of SoundMind say.
“You need to live every single day doing and speaking loud for the people that might not be able to speak up and get loud, whether that be our customers at SoundMind, or that be people in general,” Femminella says.
Femminella worked as an intern in Washington, D.C., hoping to advocate for mental health care when he met co-founder Chen. Like Femminella, Chen had a personal tie propelling him into this space.
As random roommates, the two soon realized their shared purpose to act in response to the mental health crisis.
Chen’s best friend from fourth grade died by suicide. Chen was a sophomore at the University of Southern California when he found out the news from an article in The New York Times, he says.
“That was the first time I’ve ever checked into my student health center at USC,” Chen says. “It was during midterm season. I basically flunked every single test during that time.”
From then on, he decided to take action.
“I can’t just be on the sidelines of the mental health pandemic,” Chen tells Fortune. “I really need to be a change-maker in this space.”
Femminella and Chen came together with a common goal: making mental health resources more available to the most vulnerable. And thus, students stood out front and center.
In college, Femminella took a course called “World Music” in the USC Thornton School of Music on the healing power of sound, where he began to explore how music can help the brain overcome anything from PTSD to anxiety and stress.
People using SoundMind can indicate their levels of stress, anxiety, or depression at the outset. The platform then curates a set of sounds targeted to help with these specific feelings that people can listen to for a short time each day. The app provides thousands of soundscapes and binaural beats like “cultivate dream” targeting foggy brain and anxiety, or “brainstorm delight,” targeting obsessive compulsiveness and focus.
Music can help promote relaxation and improve focus by allowing the brain to pivot attention to the frequency of the beats. Music also helps the brain adapt—a mechanism known as neuroplasticity—where it creates more calming and positive thought patterns the more something enjoyable is practiced.
“It kind of reverses what your brain is telling you to feel in that fight or flight response, after constant usage of a certain positive or more healing, as we like to say, sound,” Femminella says.
In preliminary research approved by the National Institute of Health, still undergoing peer review, the platform reduced feelings of stress, uneasiness, and anxiety through self-testing after a 1-week and 3-week trial, Femminella says.
The majority of people tested reported feeling excited to use the app daily for a week.
The platform’s technology uses sounds from its in-house audio team of composers and provides resources to third-party mental health tools.
The Thriving College Students Index Report, which surveyed nearly 20,000 college students late last year, found music was the most popular tool for students managing their mental health.
“It is encouraging to see that a large student subset is thriving even amid the high levels of stress and anxiety and that there are effective de-stressors students rely on like listening to music and socializing,” Dr. Sonia Krishna, a board-certified physician specializing in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry says in a statement. Listening to music is linked to lowering blood pressure and improving symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Within schools, counselors can use SoundMind’s hub to assess students’ mood, providing staff with potential interventions to bolster social and emotional learning, like a suggested 5-minute reset before or after a test.
“We are not the status quo mental health company. We will define, break and disrupt every single barrier that already exists,” Femminella says.
To Femminella and Chen, disrupting looks like prioritizing prevention over treatment, and they make it clear that the app doesn’t replace standard mental health interventions, like the school counselor. It may add additional context while allowing students to be at the forefront of their care.
“You also have students that aren’t going to counselors because they were afraid of even talking about their mental health struggles as a whole,” Femminella says.
Amidst over 100 mass shootings this year alone, countless acts of injustice, and a growing mental health epidemic, Femminella and Chen hope to give students a way to calm their brains—while they know it won’t solve the realities of what it means to be a young person today.
“SoundMind is not gonna be the answer … but it’s definitely going to be another way where people can feel seen, feel heard, feel respected,” Femminella says.
Femminella and Chen have since returned to congress, where they have spoken about the importance of mental health policy directed at soldiers, LGBTQ+ individuals, the AAPI community, and youth—groups that Femminella and Chen have been outspoken toward.
The duo hopes to stay at the forefront of the mental health epidemic, continuing to push for more funding and evolving to serve their customers when it seems fit, they say.
“Travis and I were marginalized founders and first-time founders, and we never let that stop us when certain traditional ways of funding went out the door. We kept fighting and kept pushing because we knew a mission was there,” Femminella says. “That even means that Travis and I might have to go back to the drawing board, which we’re already doing, and revamping a lot of our entire services.”
This week, SoundMind partnered with TruConnect to deliver tablets to students who qualify for free lunch programs, among other programs for underserved communities. The hope is to give more students the chance to access music therapy to calm their brains.
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