Startup Hopes to Make Mental Health Checkups as Common as Annual Physicals
The significant numbers to keep in mind, according to Joronda Montaño, the co-founder of Neckup Checkup, are 50, 15 and 10. “Fifty percent of mental illness shows up in a person by age 15 but isn’t diagnosed until 10 years later,” she said.
Part of the reason for this delay is because we do not treat mental health the way we treat physical wellness. Parents are used to having their children have an annual physical but checking on a child’s mental health tends not to come up unless or until there is a crisis.
To meet that gap, Montaño and Katrina Ontiveros have started Neckup Checkup, an affordable service that uses a questionnaire to assess the mental health of young children and teens.
“We are trying to help parents understand the mental wellness of their children by monitoring them yearly,” said Ontiveros. “We are being proactive before there’s a problem.”
The questionnaire Neckup Checkup uses is commonly available to pediatricians and other healthcare providers. It is administered at the child’s school and Montaño and Ontiveros analyze the results. Parents are given the assessment, which places the child in one of three zones: green, meaning that the child is exhibiting good mental health; yellow, which identifies areas of concern; and red, in which case Neckup Checkup suggests the child see a mental health professional.
The startup, which began in 2016 and is currently administering the questionnaire in one school, is working with Chandler Innovations.
Montaño said that the idea for the company came up when the mother of four was driving with her children in the car. Upon stopping at an intersection, her then 5-year-old son saw a homeless man and asked why he was homeless. Montaño, who has worked in suicide and substance abuse prevention for many years, started to explain the causes, including the role of mental illness in homelessness.
About that same time, Montaño noticed that in annual exams, doctors stopped asking her about her children’s mental development around the age of 2.
“We talked about it and noticed the disconnect,” said Ontiveros. “Here we had increasing concern about suicide and mental illness with kids, but mental health wasn’t being discussed until there was a crisis. There have been too many times when Joronda, as a preventionist, worked with parents only after they found out their child attempted suicide or after a drug overdose.”
The cost of the Neckup Checkup exam is $40. In addition to the assessment based on the questionnaire, Neckup Checkup provides suggestions on improving or maintaining a child’s mental health, such as physical activity or keeping a journal.
Neckup Checkup’s ultimate goal is to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and make having a mental health checkup as common as an annual physical. Through this monitoring, Montaño and Ontiveros believe they can significantly reduce preventable health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression.
“We are trying to normalize mental health checkups,” said Montaño. “Every dollar in prevention saves $18 in treatment, according to the latest estimates. That’s a tremendous amount of money saved just with a little bit of prevention.”
The founders are Neckup Checkup’s only full-time employees, but as the company expands, there are plans to have students earning their master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University help with the administration of the questionnaires. The move will allow Neckup Checkup to expand their services and help more parents and caregivers to ensure the mental health of their children.