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XZEVN: Using AI to revolutionise mental health self-management

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As a 9/11 first responder and US military veteran, Robert Williams knows only too well how fundamental looking after mental health and wellbeing is. Here, he tells Health Tech World how he created virtual self-management platform XZEVN to help guide people through difficult periods, while also empowering employers, care givers and insurance plans to offer greater support

 

“I know what people go through everyday. I’ve seen a lot of death and trauma, both personally and in my occupation, and right now people need hope. The more options we can give them, the better we can be.” 

That sentiment underpins the whole premise of XZEVN. Developed and refined over many years, with founder Robert Williams confessing it’s a concept he has worked on for most of his life, its launch coincides with a developing global mental health crisis amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

But through years, decades even, of work on the project – which have in the past been met with refusal after refusal from funders and potential partners – the realisation that mental health must be a global priority means that XZEVN is proving a ready-made solution for businesses and individuals worldwide. 

The US-based business has devised the AI-based means to identify areas in which people are struggling or are experiencing issues, enabling them to identify when something is wrong and for XZEVN to recommend areas in which they need help. 

Robert Williams, founder of XZEVN

For employers and care givers, it offers a technology-based way to gain greater insight into the wellbeing of their people, and identify early warning and intervention strategies. 

“In a chaotic event, it’s easy to lose touch with the resources that will help you. But we aim to help people get back in touch with that internal strength and guide them through that,” says Robert, whose own experience as both a police officer involved in the 9/11 response, and an Army veteran, has helped to give an unrelenting focus to his business. 

“There is not enough therapy to meet the challenge at present, the mental health crisis is happening in every continent, it’s a crisis costing hundreds of billions of dollars – but that’s where XZEVN can help, to plan through that. We can help take some of these people away from the emergency rooms. And businesses need to start considering themselves mental health plan implementers, to help their teams with the mental health support they need.”

Robert’s own story is central to the development of XZEVN. Having come from a broken home and been raised by his Churchgoing grandmother in North Carolina, his increasingly troubling behaviour saw him end up before a Court aged 18, which proved to be a turning point. With a Judge telling him he had two choices – prison or the Army – Robert’s choice of the latter proved to be the making of the person he is today. 

“As a young African-American man in North Carolina, there weren’t a lot of role models around – but now, in the Army, all I had to do was look. Some of the sergeants saw something in me and they helped me, I saw how important engaging with people truly is,” he recalls. 

“This started me on the path of wanting to help people.” 

Having gone on to become a drill sergeant, Robert left the Army to join the NYSUPD, he combined his role there with volunteering with some young athletes at the University of Albany in New York. 

“I was walking by one day and heart the coach saying he had a huge problem with the athletics team. I saw some of the issues that had plagued my early life right there. I had been working on this programme, which was an early version of XZEVN, for most of my life so wanted to test it out,” says Robert. 

“We started to see change and I was very enthusiastic about the initial results – in 2010, the first year we used it, we saw a decrease in bad behaviour by the athletes by 90 per cent. I retired in 2015, but the programme is still deployed there, and continues to keep the numbers down by 60 to 70 per cent.

“They realised they were being understood, that they had the internal resources they could depend on, and by being embedded in the team they realised they all win and lose together. It was very valuable to see how this worked.

“From my background in the Church, I’m a great believer that if you give a man a fish, you can feed him for a day – but if you teach him how to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime. And it’s about teaching those skills and helping people to achieve them.”

From there, Robert realised the huge potential automation could give in extending the reach of the programme – how, by building a programme led by AI, it could go beyond an individual team to help impact lives around the world. 

“We began this journey to take human behaviour into a computer algorithm, we focused on how people engage in a community and how that is affected by an acute mental health event. We wanted to better help people when they were in need, without them having to reach out and explain themselves,” says Robert. 

“We completed research to test the hypothesis, how we could understand human intent based on natural processes and language.

“This piece of technology which understand emotions could be plugged into the back of a business, into their existing pieces of software, and could have a profound effect on their whole organisation.”

But while support was forthcoming from some quarters willing to lend support for what was still a hugely forward-thinking initiative – with CUNY Public Health Innovation Accelerator and Oxford Hill accelerators both proving significant, alongside the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, where Robert is currently completing his MBA, with accountancy giant E&Y helping them to understand the impact ZXEVN could have on businesses, rather than just individuals – the road to launch was not straightforward. 

“I had 360 confirmed ‘No’ responses from investors,” recalls Robert.

“Being an African American founder it’s not easy, we account for such a small percentage of investment out there, and in terms of medtech founders we’re even lighter on numbers.

“I realised I needed to say ‘To hell with that’. You don’t need to be a scientist or a clinician to create something like I have, you just have to have to go after it and make it happen. And those words from the Judge all those years ago, where I promised I’d do better, are still with me. 

“It’s a journey of ups and downs, and there haven’t been a lot of people to talk to along the way who have understood, but I’ve always been inspired by the fact that if I can give one person support through a challenging moment in their life, then that’s enough for me.” 

While now on a path to growth, with the business now expanding internationally, one moment for XZEVN which will always remain a highlight is its first client – Teeens, a youth care agency in Long Beach, California. 

“I love working with youth, I know what young people go through and how hard it can be. Through enabling these young people to focus on mental health practice, it can really help build in resilience, and it’s already working so well,” says Robert. 

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  1. Pingback: Kooth supports university students with mental health - Health Tech World

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