If you had asked me a few years ago why people don’t go to therapy, I would have pointed to stigma. In our society, the idea of being “unwell” is terrifying, and for a long time, there was no better way to alienate yourself than to say that you were in therapy.
But today, the conversation around mental health has swelled into the public forum. High-profile actors, musicians, comedians, athletes, business leaders, and even politicians are opening up for the first time about their mental health journeys. We’re starting to see that mental illness is common and, in many cases, invisible.
These stories are no doubt powerful, yet they’re incomplete. Yes, they are changing how we think about mental health, but only up to a certain point. After all, deciding that you are going to get help is just the first step.
The importance of finding the right care
Take Kevin Love, power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year, he courageously shared his experiences with his first panic attack and coming to terms with his anxiety. By opening up in a raw and relatable way, he showed how a person could have anxiety and still be reliable, trustworthy, and a high-performing athlete. His piece was beautiful and revealing, but when it talked about finding a therapist, he merely stated his reality: “The Cavs helped me find a therapist, and I set up an appointment.”
It’s rarely that simple. Mental health issues are unique to every individual, and not all therapists are created equal. But navigating what kind of help to ask for can be confusing, overwhelming, and can make you feel exceptionally alone.
I saw this for the first time through the eyes of my partner. She was an overworked elementary school teacher in the midst of–what we only understood much later to be–a depressive episode. Despite having fulfilling work, a loving family, and supportive friends, she found it hard to get through a day. After struggling for months, she decided to seek support. But where to start?
She didn’t know how to find a therapist. She didn’t understand what therapeutic approach or modality would work for her and, on top of that, she didn’t know how to pay for it and what role her insurance benefits would play. Because two-thirds of primary care providers in this country don’t know where to refer their patients for mental health care, it’s up to us to work with a dizzying system with a dozen provider types, hundreds of therapy types, and even more diagnoses.
My partner ended up starting with her insurance company’s website. She typed “therapist” into the search bar, took a breath, and then called the first results on the page. She left voicemail after voicemail, and when she finally got through to someone, they told her they weren’t taking new patients. At that moment, it felt like help was fundamentally out of her reach and that she’d never get better.
When she finally found a therapist who had availability, she discovered that it just felt off. She didn’t know what type of therapy she was looking for, but she knew this wasn’t it. Their time together felt forced and unproductive. She kept returning, week after week because she thought it was her only option. After six months of no progress, she stopped. She was back to where she started.
On confronting the systemic mental health problem
I had so many questions. Was her experience with the mental health system a fluke? How could this be the way this country treats people with depression? I started asking friends about their experiences with seeking out care and heard the same story over and over again. I looked at national statistics and saw that 60% of people with a serious mental illness don’t get care, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. My partner wasn’t alone in her struggle–many others faced the same, systemic problem.
This isn’t how mental health care should be. In our most fragile moments, we need our healthcare system to be at its most accessible and welcoming. I couldn’t stop thinking about this and wanted to figure out how to fix the system not only for my partner but for everyone.
Designing a system that works
It was clear to me that I needed to do more than build an app or website. We needed a completely new mental health care system altogether. Individuals shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to find a therapist that can help, so I set out to create a therapy clinic that makes it simple for anyone to find the right care for them in a setting that feels warm, welcoming, and thoughtful.
I started from what I believed should be the foundation of therapy, Two Chairs, and named my company after the power of a deep and trusting client-therapist relationship.
I’d seen through my partner’s experience how many distinct factors can affect fit and, therefore, quality of care. So we designed a matching system that utilizes data about a client’s needs, goals, and personality to identify a therapist with the right background, style, and area of expertise. This is what’s missing in our current mental health framework, and over two years of delivering care at our clinics in the Bay Area, many people have told us that this is how therapy should always work.
But we know that we still have a long way to go. In most of the United States, finding the right care remains as tricky as ever. My partner’s experience with our mental health care system is still the reality for millions of people. I sometimes feel daunted by the scale of the problem and the number of people suffering without access to the help they need.
Collectively, we’re creating a society that values mental health. Now, it’s time to strive to create systems that ensure we get the mental health care we deserve.
Alex Katz is the founder and CEO of Two Chairs, a new mental healthcare clinic model in the San Francisco Bay Area.