When Brian Femminella joined the military at 17, he found camaraderie serving alongside others.
He also observed how widespread symptoms of mental health issues were among his fellow soldiers and officers; he saw a soldier lose his memory from post-traumatic stress early in his service.
Seeing how people’s general wellbeing was declining highlighted the serious “struggles that exist behind the uniform,” Femminella said last year in a TedTalk on how to manage mental health symptoms using technology.
Many people Femminella has met and worked with, especially from marginalized groups, have faced their mental health behind closed doors for fear it will 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 her mental health growing up, he says.
The isolation experience catalyzed his military enlistment and, later, his desire to find new ways to deal with the growing mental health crisis, especially for those without access to traditional health tools. mental 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 them manage stress, anxiety and trauma. SoundMind also tracks users’ moods over time. This year, Femminella and Chen expanded their business to more schools and raised $2.25 million in seed capital, which onboarded nearly 85,000 users across 30 organizations, including schools and colleges this term.
“The platform is primarily aimed at students for mind management and social-emotional learning,” says Femminella. Fortuneadding that along with the officers he works alongside, young people are particularly vulnerable to damaging mental health issues.
Young Americans and a Growing Mental Health Crisis
Young people have faced alarming rates of anxiety and depression. More than 10% of young people suffer from severe depression which affects their life at school and at home. Suicide rates have increased by more than 50% from 2007 to 2018, and more than half of young people 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 rarely done on the national stage. “As millions of young people struggle with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them better access to mental health care in their schools,” he said.
In a December poll, parents and administrators said they felt youth mental health solutions weren’t front and center: 60% of administrators said the mental health of young people remained the same or had deteriorated compared to a year ago.
Young people deserve better, say the founders of SoundMind.
“You have to live every day doing and speaking loudly for people who might not be able to speak and make noise, whether it’s our customers at SoundMind or people in general,” says Femminella. .
“I can’t stay on the sidelines of the mental health pandemic”
Femminella worked as an intern in Washington, DC, hoping to advocate for mental health care when he met co-founder Chen. Like Femminella, Chen had a personal connection that propelled him into this space.
As random housemates, the two quickly realized their shared goal of acting in response to the mental health crisis.
Chen’s best friend in fourth grade committed suicide. Chen was a sophomore at the University of Southern California when he heard the news in an article by The New York Timeshe says.
“It was my first time at my student health center at USC,” Chen says. “It was mid-season. I basically failed all the tests during that time.
So he decides to take action.
“I can’t stay on the sidelines of the mental health pandemic,” Chen said. Fortune. “I really need to be a changemaker in this space.”
Femminella and Chen came together with a common goal: to make mental health resources more accessible to the most vulnerable. And so, the students stood out in the foreground.
How SoundMind uses music therapy
In college, Femminella took a class called “World Music” in the USC Thornton School of Music on the healing power of sound, where he began exploring how music can help the brain overcome everything from PTSD to anxiety and stress.
People using SoundMind can indicate their level of stress, anxiety or depression right from the start. The platform then curates a set of targeted sounds to help with those specific feelings that people can listen to for a short time each day. The app provides thousands of soundscapes and binaural beats like “cultivate the dream” targeting foggy brain and anxiety, or “brainstorm delight”, targeting obsessive compulsion and focus.
Music can help promote relaxation and improve concentration by allowing the brain to focus its attention on the frequency of 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 consistently using a certain positive or more healing sound, as we like to say,” says Femminella.
In preliminary research approved by the National Institute of Health, still undergoing peer review, the platform reduced feelings of stress, unease and anxiety through self-testing after a trial of a week and 3 weeks, explains Femminella.
The majority of people tested said they felt happy using the app daily for a week.
The platform’s technology uses sounds from its in-house audio team of composers and provides resources for third-party mental health tools.
Disrupting current mental health care through education technology
“We are not the status quo mental health society. We will define, break and disrupt every barrier that already exists,” says Femminella.
For Femminella and Chen, disrupting sounds like prioritizing prevention over treatment, and they make it clear that the app doesn’t replace standard mental health interventions, like the school counselor. This can add additional context while allowing students to be at the forefront of their care.
“There are also students who don’t go to see counselors because they were afraid to even talk about their mental health issues as a whole,” says Femminella.
Amid more than 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, even though they know that it will not resolve the realities of what it means to be a young person today.
“SoundMind won’t be the answer…but it will definitely be another way for people to feel seen, heard, respected,” says Femminella, and research shows that students rely on music.
How music and sound can improve well-being
THE Thriving Student Index Reportwho surveyed nearly 20,000 college students late last year found that music was the most popular tool for students to manage their mental health.
“It is encouraging to see that a large subset of students are thriving even amid high levels of stress and anxiety and that there are effective stress relievers that students rely on, such as listening to music and socializing”, Dr Sonia Krishna, says a licensed physician specializing in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in a statement. Listen 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 student mood, providing staff with potential interventions to reinforce social and emotional learning, such as a suggested 5-minute reset before or after a test .
Founders and Defenders
Femminella and Chen have since returned to Congress, where they have spoken about the importance of mental health policy for soldiers, LGBTQ+ people, the AAPI community, and youth groups that Femminella and Chen have spoken out to.
The duo hope to stay at the forefront of the mental health epidemic, continuing to push for more funding and evolving to serve their clients when it sees fit, they say.
“Travis and I were marginalized founders and first-time founders, and we never let that stop us when some traditional means of funding were abandoned. We kept fighting and pushing because we knew that ‘a mission was there,” says Femminella. “It even means that Travis and I may have to go back to the drawing board, which we’re already doing, and revamp a lot of our departments.”
This week, SoundMind partnered with TruConnect to provide tablets to students eligible 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.