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How a 25-year-old is addressing mental health during the coronavirus crisis

"Now is exactly when we can provide the best care."
Courtesy of Real

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By Courtney Gisriel

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

Improving the mental health care system has been a longtime passion for 25-year-old Ariela Safira. When a friend attempted suicide, she got an eye-opening look at a system that she realized didn't make sense. She dedicated years to studying and redesigning it, and after joining Columbia University's clinical psychology program, she discovered even more fundamental flaws within the system, chief among them being an outdated training model and an unstable income stream that deters many potentially eager providers from pursuing private practice.

From this, she decided to start Real, a membership-based organization offering an innovative approach to therapy and mental health for female-identifying people in New York. Imagine The Wing, but for mental health.

With the goal of connecting therapists and patients in a community-building space, the plan was to launch its first in-person mental health studio in New York City in April. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Safira and her team made the ultimate pivot to develop and launch Real's digital mental health offerings at a time when they're needed most.

What would you say is the mission of Real?

We're on a mission to spark a massive societal mindset shift, cementing mental health care as a vital part of the self-care and health care routine. To do that, we're making mental health care itself less intimidating to people and we're also improving the care that's provided.

What was the feedback that you got when started pitching this idea around?

I think every single investor I spoke to had their own mental health story. And I definitely had a lot less ugly of a pitching experience than a lot of my peers because truly every investor I'd spoken to had their own story to share about their own depression, their partner's depression, someone in their family attempting suicide.

Ariela Safira, the founder of Real. Courtesy of Real

People were very surprised to hear the problems on the provider front. It makes it more clear why therapy isn't that great because it's a really hard business for a therapist to keep up. Investors were very surprised to hear that part of the story especially because every headline about providers right now, about therapists specifically, is that there aren't enough. And that's actually the wrong angle if you ask me. There are enough, they just cannot devote their time to private practice care or they can only devote a small amount of time to private practice care because of how unstable it is.

I became so passionate about the field because it's clear this is an issue across all people that's just not talked about. Now is a very unique time in history where we're finally discussing it.

The coronavirus has completely changed your plans for this business launch. Can you walk me through your thought process from three weeks ago to where you are now?

Our mission remains, which is that mental health care matters and that's something we should always be taking care of, not just in crisis. The way in which we deliver it can and will change and should change based on humanity. If anything, the coronavirus is asking us to check ourselves and see if we drink our own Kool-Aid. Should we have to change the way we deliver care based on what people are like? And the answer is yes.

Three weeks ago, we were preparing for our studio doors to open next week. Construction workers were doing construction and marketing campaigns were going to be launched around the city. That didn't happen.

Essentially last week, we decided we need to spin out a digital product. Within eight days, we have thought up, created and launched our digital offering which is, in some ways, a digital take on our studio.

We're launching for free for one full month, offering group salons, events and one-time one-on-one sessions.

Group salons are six-to-eight participant groups that are therapist-led. They each have four sessions and examples of salons include juggling parenting and working while in quarantine, what does it mean to be single and alone during quarantine, self-pleasure during quarantine, managing the financial crisis both resourcefully and emotionally for business owners, and for pregnant mothers, giving them space to talk about how scary this time is but also remember how beautiful pregnancy is.

And then one-on-one sessions — those are one-time sessions with a therapist. You receive a care plan at the end of that session. It's meant to be your 45 minutes with a therapist and by the end of it, we will have action items identifying what we went over during that session and identifying actions you can spend the next few weeks doing to maintain ease and stability to the best of your abilities during this very funky time.

You've been working on this for years now. How are you dealing with the change in how this is going to be formatted when you first are introduced to the world?

My passion remains the same and if anything, I feel all the more sure that this is what we have to be doing. And all the more driven to do it. It's not the means of delivering care that I was so passionate about, it's providing care.

I've truly cried at least once every 48 hours of happiness just seeing that we brought the best team together, given that everyone is working 18 hour days to develop an entirely new company in eight days. I'm very excited to have the opportunity to provide care to so many people and I'm just so, so impressed and motivated by this team of 15 people who have just rolled up their sleeves and sprinted at this new product as if it was our original idea to begin with.

The big differentiator of Real compared to therapy today is that it's community-driven. It's a membership-driven space and I think now is when we're put to the test. How do we create community when people need it most? I'm saddened that people need it so badly and that they're facing immense stress, but I'm shocked Real's launching right now because now is exactly when we can provide the best care.

What are some of the stories that you've been hearing from people that encouraged you to keep going down this path and showed that this is what we need right now?

All of my friends who live alone are in mourning at this point. They're very isolated, constantly reaching out saying they're craving people to an extent I have never heard people say before. The people in my life who are communicating this have never felt such a need.

Friends who are single moms are having an incredibly hard time making space for themselves, giving themselves permission to have space, giving themselves permission to hand the kid the iPad for the day and be OK with it.

I think even if I wasn't the founder of Real I'd be getting these messages, but perhaps because I'm the founder, I have friends saying I just want a group of people who are going through what I'm going through right now. I just want to know how is someone else doing this?

We launched a few pilot salons yesterday and women were crying in our salon. This is the first time our therapists held digital salons and women are crying, women are emoting. Our feedback survey has people communicating how beautiful this was.

Actually one of my friends who was in it — a friend who I would describe as perhaps my most apathetic friend, someone who certainly doesn't like talking about feelings with me when I like to talk about them — posted, unprompted, this incredibly long Instagram post about what she's going through right now, how much she's processing and how thankful she is to Real for giving her the space and the words to understand what she's going through. That was another one of those moments I cried.

This is all to say, I've been hearing a tremendous amount of people facing really negative feelings right now and yesterday, I got to hear from people feeling just a bit more hopeful because of Real.