Mental health is often a topic many struggle to talk about. Those who struggle with mental health issues often feel isolated and ashamed of what they’re going through or the way they feel. These were feelings Aneela Idnani was dealing with.
“I have personally suffered from a hair pulling disorder, trichotillomania, since my early teens. It’s a trance-like state and a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety … As a young teen who didn’t understand why I was pulling [my hair], I grew up ashamed that I was doing this to myself. This shame led me to hide behind makeup for nearly 20 years,” she explains.
Idnani was able to keep her secret until recently. “My husband caught me one morning without eyebrows. My entire brow was gone,” she says. She had been able to put her makeup on each morning, without her husband Sameer Kumar noticing that any hair was missing. “In being caught, I was finally able to release the secret that I was pulling out my hair,” she says.
From there Kumar did his research on trichotillomania and encouraged Idnani to see a psychologist, and this started Idnani on an important journey. “One day, as we were watching televison, I was pulling mindlessly, and [Sameer] took my hand….I quickly retorted, ‘I wish I had something that notified me that wasn’t you!’” Idnani says.
This moment sparked what would eventually build HabitAware, a business founded by Idnani, Kumar, and their two friends John Pritchard and Kirk Klobe. Through HabitAware, the team was able to come up with just the device Idnani was looking for, Keen.
As Idnani describes it, Keen is “a smart bracelet that uses patented gesture recognition intelligence to bring awareness to unwanted hand movements. A user trains Keen to look for their specific behavior using our mobile app. In 30 seconds, the gesture is recorded onto Keen. When Keen senses a match to the gesture it was trained for, it sends a gentle vibration … reminding the person that their hands aren’t where they want them to be and acts as a signal to replace the trance-like behavior with something healthy. We include a deep breathing light on the HabitAware smart bracelet to help our Keen family get started with this ‘retrain your brain’ process.”
HabitAware’s hard work is starting to be recognized statewide. In 2018 they were given top selection at MNCUP, which Idnani describes as being “like a bootcamp for entrepreneurs.” While winning this award was a tremendous success, Idnani says that even the application process was eye-opening. “Although we’ve always known our ‘why’ and ‘how’ for HabitAware, the act of putting all this down on paper was clarifying and invigorating,” she says.
Idnani and the HabitAware team have even received recognition by being awarded a federal grant for $300,000 from the National Institutes of Health. “[The grant] is important for so many reasons,” Idnani explains. “It acknowledges that we as sufferers of these disorders exist and that a solution is worth seeking.”
The National Institutes of Health has opened many doors for Keen. “While we are currently helping thousands around the world, the grant will help us improve the Keen smart bracelet technology and prove its efficacy.”
Through her work with HabitAware, Idnani has found a way to use her experience with mental illness into something more; she is using it to help people like her and beyond.