As founders continue to grapple with the implications of COVID-19, a nascent Halifax psychology startup is changing its launch plans to help the public cope with the lockdown.

The startup 90Second Health is the brainchild of psychologist Dr. Patrick McGrath, who is a professor emeritus at Dalhousie University and a researcher at the IWK Health Centre. The company’s main business model is to distribute white-lable mental health newsletters on behalf of other organizations, but that strategy is temporarily on the backburner as McGrath pivots to focus on community wellness.

The COVID-19 Mental Health Letters will be a free email series offering research-backed advice about how to cope with issues such as sleep disruptions and anxiety.

“This wasn’t an ideal time to be launching a business,” said McGrath in an interview. “But we wanted to do something to help with COVID-19, and we didn’t feel that it was appropriate to charge for that, so we’re doing it as a public service.”

Once the rest of the business is up and running, McGrath’s plan is for companies, non-profits and institutions to pay a subscription fee for 90Second Health to distribute emails to their employees, members or customers. The newsletters will include advice on a variety of topics, and will be presented in a style concise and simple enough to be easily understood by readers without medical backgrounds.

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McGrath said that every email will include three to five pieces of actionable advice.

“The whole idea is to convey some scientifically valid information in small bites, little morsels of information, and to do it in language that is easily accessible,” he said. “Most health information, in my view, suffers from a series of problems. One is that it’s often wrong. Secondly, it’s often written in language that you need a PhD to understand. And the third issue is that you go to a website and you get 600 pages of it.”

The newsletters will also include mental health surveys that users will be able to fill out and receive feedback on. The anonymous data gathered from those surveys will be provided to the organizations that hire 90Second Health, helping them identify and address psychological challenges in their populations.

Some of the letters will be written by McGrath, while others will be prepared by graduate students—several of whom are already employed by the company on a contract basis. The content will be reviewed by Dalhousie psychiatrist Dr. Sanjay Rao for accuracy.

McGrath, who has so far bootstrapped 90Second Health’s startup costs with his own money, also plans to make its database available free to graduate students for use in their research, saving them the trouble of gathering similar data themselves.

He added, though, that he plans to scrupulously protect the privacy of respondents. They will not, for example, be asked for their full names or exact locations—only the first three digits of their postal code.

“We want to guard people’s privacy very highly,” he said. “We don’t use cookies. We will never sell the info.”