2020 has been like no other year in history. We have endured concurrent global health crises, the Covid-19 pandemic along with ongoing reckonings about inequality and injustice. As the world continues to confront the confluence of these Herculean challenges, Mental Health Missions seeks to shine a light on diversity and inclusion in the mental health field. The hope is that these grass root efforts will raise awareness about mental health disparities in communities where entire groups of people have experienced marginalization and oppression.
The Mental Health Minute is a segment highlighting professionals working in the mental health field. With the spotlight on individuals from multicultural backgrounds, this newest edition of the Mental Health Minute will look a little different. Instead of having six individuals answer quick, rapid fire questions, Mental Health Missions will be in conversation with a featured professional to gain an in-depth understanding about the perceptions of mental health within diverse communities.
Mental Health Missions is excited to feature Christine Thai Way as the first professional profiled for this new version of the Mental Health Minute. Ms. Thai Way is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Therapeasy, a Denver-based mental health startup company that uses a proprietary algorithm to match prospective patients with therapists for a strong clinical fit. Along with her team at Therapeasy, Ms. Thai Way seeks to transform the mental health industry by making treatment more accessible and equitable for all.
Please enjoy our discussion!
Mental Health Missions: How do you identify culturally?
Christine Thai Way: Chinese American
MHM: How was mental health perceived when you were growing up? What do you see as the barriers/stigmas to mental healthcare within your culture and in general? Do you think there are opportunities to transcend those barriers and how do you believe that can happen?
CTW: Growing up Chinese American certainly influenced my interest in the mental health field and idea to create my company, Therapeasy. Ironically, although resilience is a strength in Asian culture, stigma around mental health is still highly evident. This stigma can create an invisible barrier to seeking care when it is needed. I believe the stigma within my culture and in general is likely rooted in misconceptions about mental health services, the misunderstanding that mental health care is only meant for severe illnesses and diagnoses. However, just like in medical care, there is a spectrum of services, ranging from prevention/maintenance to treatment of conditions at all levels, from mild to severe. There are opportunities to transcend these misconceptions that lead to stigma and shift the mindset to a place where taking care of our mental health becomes just as important as our physical health.
MHM: You recently founded a company called Therapeasy. Can you talk about the mission of Therapeasy and how it works?
CTW: Therapeasy is a no-strings attached subscription model for mental health providers, and we are insurance-agnostic and network-agnostic. This means that Therapeasy has the true potential of becoming the first stop for anyone seeking a therapist regardless of what insurance they have or if they have insurance at all.
For patients, our services are free. We ask a few questions about patient needs and preferences and match individuals to their top compatible providers. We have a proprietary matching algorithm that accounts for factors beyond location, expertise and availability, but also elements such as personality fit and cultural competency.
Providers create a profile on our website that can be viewed by potential patients. Providers must be licensed through the state licensing board. The provider pays an affordable monthly subscription fee but because of challenges presented by the pandemic, we have made the decision to temporarily waive the fee for providers right now.
Therapeasy is on a mission to connect patients seeking care to their perfect therapist, making it easier to access mental health care. Therapeasy also serves behavioral health providers by initiating connections with patients who are a good clinical fit, so providers can spend more time and resources on the crucial services they provide. We like to think of ourselves as the eHarmony for therapy. Right now, Therapeasy is only in Colorado but we hope to eventually expand our geographic reach.
MHM: What inspired you to come up with the idea for Therapeasy?
CTW: Personally, I have dealt with anxiety and trauma. I had five different therapists in the last eight years, which led to poor management of my anxiety and trauma. Finding the perfect therapist transformed my life, and I want to make that reality easier for everyone. My personal experiences and the experiences of many close friends informed the idea for Therapeasy. As I realized how challenging it was for people to find a counselor they connect with, I developed a passion to make the process easier, both for the client and for the provider.
MHM: You mentioned that Therapeasy includes a cultural competency component. Can you explain how that works and why issues like culture and diversity are important considerations within therapy?
CTW: Cultural competency is an important consideration within mental health care because it helps reduce stigma around mental health in marginalized communities. Often, people of color may prefer to have a counselor who is culturally responsive and sensitive to their unique experiences. By including cultural competency in our matching algorithm, we hope to improve the compatibility of providers to patients from diverse backgrounds who have a preference for cultural sensitivity in their provider.
MHM: What do you believe could be some of the benefits when mental health providers are from similar backgrounds and have comparable experiences to their patients?
CTW: I believe that effective therapy requires the patient to be vulnerable, transparent, trusting and comfortable with their provider. Patients may prefer to have a counselor with a similar background so they can work with someone who understands their unique perspectives and experiences, which could improve connection and trust. A stronger patient-provider connection leads to better outcomes. Personally, I believe that meaningful work can still take place if the therapist and patient are from different backgrounds. My therapist and I are from different backgrounds; however, she is culturally sensitive and has created a safe space for me to be vulnerable and open.
MHM: How do we encourage more diversity within mental health and work to ensure that professionals in the field are representative of the general population?
CTW: This is a great question and through my work with Therapeasy, I am becoming aware of challenges when it comes to diversity and representation within the mental health field. I’m also learning about effective tactics to encourage diversity in the mental health space. As Therapeasy expands and as I continue to work on improving access to mental health care, I certainly aspire to diversify and encourage more representation in the field.
MHM: During the past year the world has gone through many challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic along with an epidemic of inequity. In your opinion, how will increased education and accessibility to mental health services help to bridge the inequity gap?
CTW: This year has been challenging for many reasons. For many people the Covid-19 pandemic has caused heightened stress, grief, anxiety and loneliness. It has disrupted good habits, self care routines, relationships and milestones. In addition, police brutality and racially-motivated violence has caused pain and trauma in marginalized communities. 2020 has magnified systemic racism and inequities within our society and within health care.
Increased education and accessibility to mental health services is incredibly needed right now, as people are trying to address mental health triggers and heal. We must work towards equal access to affordable and culturally-sensitive mental health services for everyone. We must also combat stigma around mental health treatment. I believe that if people are more informed and have fewer barriers to therapy, we will be able to extend healing and start reducing the disparity gap.
MHM:What has working in the mental health field taught you and what drives you to continue doing this work that can be arduous and taxing?
CTW: My co-founders, Jon Just and Dr. Katie Richardson, and I have spent three years developing Therapeasy and, working in this field has taught me that there is tremendous need for services that support mental wellbeing. It is also evident that the mental health system is difficult to navigate and there is a shortage of mental health professionals. These realizations only motivate me to continue working in this field and I believe Therapeasy can be a part of the transformation of the industry.
MHM: What has been your most gratifying professional accomplishment thus far?
CTW: My most gratifying professional accomplishment thus far was launching Therapeasy in May 2020. My co-founders and I have worked hard on this passion project for the past three years, studying the factors that make a strong patient-provider fit and designing a great user experience.
MHM: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions people have when it comes to mental health, mental illness, and addiction?
CTW: I believe that one big misconception around mental health is it does not impact most people; however, it is actually very common. 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness each year. I believe another misconception is that therapy is not effective and is a waste of time. It appears many people are frustrated by their experience navigating the challenging systems to seek mental health care and have likely experienced a poor fit with their therapists in the past. This is supported by data that shows up to 57% of people who seek care drop out of therapy after only their first session. Speaking from experience, I can say that finding a great therapist who I connected with has truly transformed the way I manage my anxiety and trauma.
MHM: Accessing healthcare (including mental healthcare) can be significantly more challenging in diverse communities and for people from marginalized backgrounds. In your opinion, what can be done to increase access and provide education about mental health?
CTW: Education and dialogue about the importance of mental health could decrease the stigma around receiving mental health care in all communities, including in marginalized communities. Making mental health care more accessible and affordable is also incredibly important. It is apparent that there is a shortage of mental health professionals; many providers I speak with daily are not able to accept new patients because their practices are at capacity. Encouraging more people to explore careers in this field and encouraging more providers to accept insurance (including Medicaid and offering sliding scale fee schedules) will help make services more equitable and accessible to all. Increased diversity and inclusion in behavioral health professions is also imperative so patients can seek care with providers who are culturally sensitive and competent.
MHM: Based on your personal experiences, how can someone who is dealing with a mental health issue feel empowered and eventually build resilience if they are from a community where mental health is stigmatized or dismissed altogether?
CTW: It is different for everyone, but I empathize with people who are from communities where mental health is highly stigmatized. For me, I began by sharing my struggles and personal experiences with a few people whom I knew I could trust. By sharing, I unknowingly created a safe space for those around me to share their personal stories as well, leading to a healthy dialogue about mental health. I began to feel more empowered and confident that I was not alone, and that I was supported. Sometimes, the first step is just starting a conversation with a trusted friend or family member. If you don’t feel comfortable confiding in someone within your circle, there are available resources that you can access which can provide guidance and support.
MHM: What is your greatest hope when it comes to your professional mark/legacy? How do you hope to impact others in your community with the work that you are doing in the mental health field?
CTW: My greatest hope is to make mental health care accessible and equitable for all. This includes eliminating stigma around mental health and removing as many barriers as possible for those who are ready to seek care. With Therapeasy, I aspire to disrupt the current challenging process of seeking care and simultaneously improve marketing efficiency for providers so they can spend more time doing what they do best. As an Asian-American, I hope my work will encourage more transparent dialogue about mental health within my community. I’d love to inspire others to seek care if they are dealing with difficulties that are affecting mental wellbeing or if they simply would like to explore personal goals towards self-improvement.
Christine Thai Way is Co-Founder and CEO of Therapeasy, which launched in May of 2020. To learn more about the services at Therapeasy, to find a compatible provider, or to register as a therapist on the platform, visit the Therapeasy website by clicking here. Photo courtesy of Ms. Thai Way.