The impact of COVID-19 extends far beyond the physical symptoms it can cause. The toll on mental health has been widespread and extensive, from anxiety about contracting the illness, to fear about family and loved ones, to job and financial insecurity, to the trauma of essential workers who continue to be exposed daily. A sample of headlines from the past week includes: “The Next Covid Crisis Could be a Wave of Suicides” (Bloomberg), “Mental Distress Among Americans Has Tripled During Pandemic” (Time Magazine), “How Coronavirus is Taking a Toll on Mental Health” (New York Times), and “‘I’m never going to be the same’: Medics grapple with mental trauma on COVID-19 front line” (Reuters).
My Wellbeing is a New York-based startup that is helping to combat this mental health toll by connecting therapy seekers with therapists. CEO Alyssa Petersel (Silver '17) founded the company while pursuing her Master’s in Social Work at NYU. She started to look for a therapist herself but discovered that finding the right therapist was an unnecessarily long, complicated process. After navigating the technical jargon, varying prices and insurance policies, array of skillsets and focuses, and geographical locations, you still need to meet and figure out if you click.
Petersel founded My Wellbeing to eliminate the difficulties she faced. Therapy seekers visit mywellbeing.com and fill out a five-minute survey. Questions include topics like geographic location, money you’re willing to invest, issues you want to address, issues you want your therapist to have specialization in, what type of therapy you want (replacing technical terms like CBT with questions like ‘do you want practical advice and occasional homework?’), and specific traits (e.g. Is it important for your therapist to be a person of color? Is it important for your therapist to identify as LGBTQIA+?).
After filling out the form, you receive a personalized match with whom you can schedule a free phone consultation. If you click, you can start scheduling on your own (usually in person, though therapists have adapted to virtual sessions in response to COVID-19). If it’s not the right fit, My Wellbeing will provide additional matches until you find the right therapist.
Petersel has noticed that the coronavirus pandemic has led not only to an uptick in therapy seekers but also to a shift in the way people speak about mental health: “It’s opened conversations…and made even more headway against stigma because nearly everyone is impacted from a mental health standpoint.”
My Wellbeing has long been committed to opening up conversations about mental health issues, from articles on the website’s “Content Corner,” to an active Instagram account sharing stories and advice, to creating partnerships with companies and individuals. Now, against the backdrop of COVID-19, Petersel reflects that more and more people and companies are eager to strike up partnerships: “We’re connecting with brands and thought leaders in a way that…even just a couple of weeks ago would’ve taken a lot of really strategic and intentional outreach on our end. Now, the tide has turned and everyone is talking about mental health, reaching out for support and resources, and looking for partnerships.”
One such partnership is with Bumble BFF, who recently joined forces with My Wellbeing for an Instagram Live. Petersel led a meditation and two NYC therapists offered tips. Viewers were invited to enter to win free remote therapy sessions that Bumble would pay for. “It’s great to see companies using their privilege and their platform to raise awareness,” Petersel said, “But also for them to start putting dollar signs on their values is really powerful.”
Petersel has also noticed an increase in companies showing interest in sponsoring or co-facilitating workshops for employees on topics like burnout, grief, layoffs, and communicating mental health needs to a boss, as well as workshops for employers on creating space for staff to express mental health needs. One such partner is Cigna, which offers workshops through its Employee Assistance Program (EAP), so employees are able to receive mental health resources for free. “It’s long overdue for insurance companies to focus on mental health,” Petersel reflects.
My Wellbeing currently works with a network of providers in New York City, but plans to expand geographically in the near future. The focus on New York comes in part from Petersel’s own connection to NYU. During her Master’s, Petersel engaged with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, the Leslie eLab. There, she worked closely with the Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR), Andy Moss, who suggested Petersel look into NYU’s Summer Launchpad program.
My Wellbeing was selected as one of 10 companies to participate in NYU’s 2017 Summer Launchpad accelerator, a 10-week program supported by the school’s Blackstone LaunchPad program, provided $10k in grant funding, and an array of programming including startup skills boot camps, coaching, and pro-bono legal advice on incorporating a business.
“That really laid the foundation for me from an advisor perspective as well as an investor perspective,” Petersel says of her time with NYU Summer Launchpad. The most critical piece of learning she received was the importance of focusing on customer research and discovery: “It gave us a big strategic advantage from day one to prioritize talking to the actual people whom we were trying to help. Otherwise you get in your way about what’s best for the business, what unit economics makes sense,…or what’s the most efficient. You can create the most efficient, polished business model ever and if people aren’t interested, it won’t go anywhere.”
It was also through the Summer Launchpad program that Petersel connected with her longest-serving advisor, Patrick Renner, the co-founder and COO of Citrustlabs (formerly Mind Mate). Renner has continued to advise Petersel over the years, at first weekly, then monthly, and now quarterly.
After that initial Summer Launchpad program, Petersel participated in both Blackstone’s LaunchPad Lift program and Entrepreneur Roundtable Accelerator. From these programs, Petersel notes that one of the best parts was the connections she built with other founders: “I’m on a number of listservs of other cohort-mates, and everyone is doing amazing things and making the world a better place, which is really powerful to see and be a part of.”
Frank Rimalovski, Executive Director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, oversees the school’s programming like Summer Launchpad and Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars. He remembers meeting Petersel when she first applied to the Summer Launchpad: “While the concept for My Wellbeing was early, it has stayed true to her original vision and passion for helping others. While she had limited business/entrepreneurial experience or training, Alyssa took to it very quickly and honed her skills, identified a scalable and repeatable business model, and relentlessly tested and validated with customers. Alyssa has been invaluable to the community as a role model, mentor and speaker to other students since she’s graduated.”
For other NYU students thinking about becoming entrepreneurs, Petersel has only good things to say. “First and foremost, I would say to one thousand percent take advantage of the resources at the Leslie eLab. The whole team is incredibly supportive.” Beyond that, she recommends that students explore the variety of advising opportunities, extra-curricular offerings (including podcasts, panels, networking events), courses that may count towards a degree, and the pitch competitions, grants, and programs for which only students are eligible.
“And,” Petersel adds with a smile, “people are often a lot more willing to help a student for free. If you call anyone or message them on LinkedIn and say ‘Hey, I’m a student doing research for X,’ they’re a lot more likely to say ‘Oh yeah that’s sweet.’ Versus if you’re like ‘Hey I run this business will you —’ and they’re like ‘No, you’re trying to sell me something, go away.’”
Overall, Petersel is glad that she has My Wellbeing now so she “can channel [her] energy into work that is meaningful.” Even though running a company during a pandemic has created a whole new set of challenges, she feels lucky to be operating in an industry with increased importance, to be in a position to grow financially, and to be in a role that allows her to help people, which creates a feeling of productivity and resilience.
At the end our interview, Petersel swapped out her entrepreneur hat for her social worker hat to provide some parting wisdom: “Especially at this time, but really always, I encourage people to take care of themselves. If you have to slow down to reevaluate so that you can speed up, it’s worth it…. It’s a lot harder to bounce back from burnout post burnout than to try to proactively recognize it and put in regular practices to reduce the absolute low ground.”