How a former U of T student is making mental health services and training more accessible to students
The Get A-Head platform simultaneously provides mental health care and helps trainees accumulate clinical hours
When Ahad Bandealy moved to Canada in 2009 to pursue his PhD in behavioural health at the University of Toronto, he never expected to develop Get A-Head, an innovative platform that facilitates mental health care and training.
But, as he was trying to accumulate his clinical training hours, he saw the shortcomings of the therapeutic supervision system. For disciplines related to behavioural health such as psychology, psychiatry, social work and addictions counselling, Bandealy says that doctoral students must accumulate a significant number of supervised counselling hours in a short period of time. “Often, you must gain these with little to no compensation, and you are encumbered with a ton of administrative burdens, all while balancing the rigours of your daily life and a class schedule. Practitioner training in psychology has remained archaic.”
This hard-to-navigate system negatively affects patient outcomes and impedes the ability of PhD students to complete their doctorates. Plus, it exacerbates the ongoing struggle for students to find accessible mental health care. Bandealy could not ignore these issues. He paused his studies to devise a solution that delivers improved patient care while prioritizing the critical training hours that mental health professionals require.
Turning negative experiences into a positive solution
“As someone who trained as a clinical practitioner and suffered from my own mental health challenges, the conversation around accessible mental health care is incredibly personal to me,” Bandealy says. “I recognized some major inefficiencies: practitioner demand outpaced supply, clinical training was costly and time-consuming, and lastly, there was a failure to provide objective data regarding one’s mental health. With this in mind and with the support of many others, I was empowered to create Get A-Head.”
Get A-Head is a platform that pairs clients with clinicians-in-training, and a patent-pending one-way digital mirror allows accredited professionals to remotely supervise each session. Throughout the interaction, Get A-Head leverages artificial intelligence that analyzes linguistic patterns to provide the practitioner with key insights and behavioural nuances on any potential change in the patient’s mental health. “This feature also determines key metrics on rapport, authenticity and cognitive processing to increase the likelihood of delivering successful care,” says Bandealy. By quantifying metrics, supervising professors can provide students with better guidance to successfully complete their training.
In 2021, Get A-Head launched a successful pilot through Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities. During this program, 11 professors supervised 90 trainees, who provided care to 294 students. There was a 98 per cent retention rate for those receiving care, and student well-being improved by 32 per cent.
More need than ever for mental health care
Over the last several years, the need for mental health care among post-secondary students has increased dramatically. Three-quarters of post-secondary students surveyed in a 2022 study said that their mental health had been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and there are significant barriers to accessing mental health services, including wait times, stigma and confidentiality concerns.
Based on the success of Get A-Head’s pilot, in March 2022, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities announced that the platform would be available to all post-secondary institutions in Ontario. Since the beginning of the 2022/2023 academic year, Get A-Head has been adopted by users in 34 of Ontario’s 46 post-secondary institutions, provided over 25,000 therapy sessions to students, and received widespread support. In 2022, the platform was acquired for $17 million by Keel Digital Solutions, formerly Vector Health Labs. Bandealy is now Chief Digital Officer of Keel Digital Solutions and has stayed on to lead the Get A-Head business where he continues to develop the platform in both Canada and the United States.
The way Get A-Head helps make mental health care more accessible is two-fold—first, it provides free therapy through its digital platform, and second, it eases the shortage of mental health professionals by fast-tracking the acquisition of training hours. Bandealy says, “We look forward to training graduates so they can work to effectively address the mental health crisis as professionals.”