When working with a mental health professional, finding the right therapist is key. Colleen Leung, founder of Unmute, hopes for a world where prioritizing one’s mental health is as common as going to the gym. In this episode of the Voices in Education podcast, Colleen shares why finding the right therapist is imperative, plus how Unmute is tackling the supply and demand imbalance of patients and therapists, especially within marginalized communities.
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Check out Unmute to help you find the right therapist: https://www.unmute.today/home
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In today's episode, we are answering the mental health question by saying there's an app for that! Colleen Leung is the CEO of Unmute, a platform that makes the process of finding a therapist just as easy by matching therapy seekers to the right therapist through AI. Thank you for joining us, Colleen. So after trying to find therapists for yourself and for your loved ones, you realized how challenging the process was, and as many of us know, that challenge has been even amplified during this pandemic. So how is this a starting point for you and for Unmute?
It actually began with trying to find a therapist for my mom. I'm Chinese American, first generation born here in the States. So my mom is an immigrant. And so stereotypically we didn't speak about mental health in our family growing up. And so when my mom became clinically depressed about four or five years ago, I didn't know how to support her. It was pretty severe to the point where she had suicidal thoughts. And home for me is Hawaii is all my family's there. I'm currently based in Boston. I had to fly back home and help stabilize her. And I thought, "I'm going to help my mom find a therapist." I didn't know much about mental health at that time, in my mid twenties. And so I went down that rabbit hole and it was an awful user experience. I felt so lonely. I didn't know where to start. I didn't know what insurance would cover. I didn't know what would be a good fit.
Long story short, ended up matching my mom to a therapist, but she stopped going into therapy and was lying to me telling me that she was going. And the therapist calls me one day and tells me while I'm in Boston, "Your mom's been no calling, no showing, so I'm going to have to take her off from my panel." I quickly called my mom and she told me she wasn't interested in trying therapy again, that therapist wasn't good for her. It wasn't a good fit and, "No thanks, I'm going to heal my depression on my own." And so that's where I realized that especially for a first time therapy seeker, how dangerous it is. I mean, I don't know if dangerous is the right word, but to find the wrong match from the get go, you need to have a good experience with your therapist, especially if you're a first time therapy seeker that already has stigma around therapy.
And so that really was the impetus for Unmute in. We're focusing on the match quality and really working on getting a matching algorithm down. And we've been doing that since 2020 actually and have helped about 400 people to date.
Wow. And I think that idea of match, particularly when we're looking for somebody, one relationally to connect to, but two even more than that, somebody who can connect and... I guess for lack of a better term, solve some challenge and issue that you have. I mean, it's super layered. It's much different than some of the other social platforms of just connecting with people. There's a heavy reason and rationale behind it, which I'm wondering how that plays out in terms of making sure that both the therapists and the client really connect. How does that play out?
And you hit a good point, around finding a therapist is very different from finding a PCP or a foot doctor and whatever specialist when you're looking for a medical doctor. Therapy is so personal and something that we're doing and we're learning about our users, is about what their preferences are, what do they care about, what actually makes a good match for them. And we're planning to use machine learning to help us nail down what makes a good match in the future. Right now, currently for our process, we're asking questions around one, what are the clinical presenting issues of our users? Why are they seeking therapy? They'll go ahead and check off, perhaps it's ADHD, anxiety, depression. And then from there we'll ask about what are your personal preferences in a therapist? And oftentimes we're finding that our users care a lot about the communities that the therapists are part of or even allied with.
A large proportion of our users are LGBTQ plus, they're immigrants, they're looking for a polyamory friendly therapist, kink-friendly, are all these preferences that people have that existing sites just don't have that data around their providers. And the last piece is really around logistics. Are you planning to use your health insurance? And that's where a lot of the challenges come in is matching on health insurance plans. And that's where we're hoping to go in the future, is to sell and partner with health insurances so that the search process when you go on to your health insurance site is really powered by Unmute.
You talked about these particular client groups, adults, just general adults with need to match with somebody, LGBTQ groups, immigrant families, elder, even young people where parents are looking for therapists or folks for their child to connect with. Beyond a client need, is there also a need on the provider end, the therapist themselves to say, "Hey, I feel like I need to connect with a clientele that I am really aligned with and I can serve, and who's out there to help me to connect with the right people who I can really help serve?"
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we've been working with... we work with about 200 therapists and we've been learning this since the beginning that therapists do have preferences. Obviously they're not going to state that on their website and say, "We don't take clients that are X, Y, and Z." But in our intake for therapists, we also go through a very thorough intake around the data about who they are and also what their business is in terms of what sort of clients do they prefer and what sort of clients they not take. Oftentimes we have therapists who don't take high risk patients, so patients who have suicide ideation or have eating disorders just because that's not their specialty. But there are other therapists who do take those patients. What we're finding is that there's a lot of mismatch that's happening. One in two people are quitting therapy due to a lack of therapist fit. And so there's a lot of inefficiencies in a market that where there's a supply and demand imbalance. Way more patient demand post-COVID around folks seeking therapy and not enough therapists in the US. And so these inefficiencies are occurring.
And so in terms of the bad or poor match, and therapists have preferences, the patient has preferences. That's where we're focusing on is getting that match correct so we can efficiently utilize an imbalanced market.
We had a great conversation with a school counselor who has been helping not only the students whom she serves, but even the families and some of the hidden challenges that they have had over the past more than a year of unique teaching and learning and them working at home and all of those kind of impactful pieces that are stressors to say the least for everyone in the family. And she was having a lot of challenge, I think, in finding the correct people because an exodus in the K-12 education market and finding particular therapists and providers that are aligned with what the needs are of students, of parents, of immigrant families who are within the school. And I'm wondering how your initial product in terms of Unmute and what you were trying to solve, how that has grown over time in the very short time that you started, and has that crossed over even into the student market as well?
Yeah, absolutely. So we started off actually focusing on therapists and our business model was targeted and selling our services to them. Initially we charged an admin fee for each referral and then we got them on a monthly subscription basis. And it actually focuses around the piece that you said around therapists not being able to provide culturally competent care in the sense that the therapist market isn't very diverse. About 80% of our therapists in the US are white. However, on the patient front, we were talking or been talking working with marginalized communities, so folks of immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ plus. But then we were realizing that our therapists weren't coming from these backgrounds just statistically looking at the numbers. So we thought, "Hey, instead of pumping more supply of therapists of color, a diverse therapist, can we retrain our therapists to be culturally confident?"
We launched that late last year, some continuing education courses for our therapists, and we're continuing to engage them in that way. But today we realize quickly that we don't want to be charging our therapist right now. We need their data actually more than we need their revenue at this point in time in our business model. And the scalable business model doesn't really even rely on their revenue. And so our services are free for a therapist today. They can just sign up on our website and we will send over referrals and we have somewhat of a community for them to gather and to connect with other therapists and attend these courses that we have for them.
Whether fortunately in terms of the solution you provide or unfortunately in terms of what the needs are of our friends, our family, the broader environment, what is the outlook, I think, in terms of the true needs of people and that you are seeing, I think from your lens of working at Unmute and what's next I think in terms of your work and Unmute and getting the right people connected to the right providers?
I mean, if we look at the data, young people, 18 to 25 year olds have the highest prevalence of any mental illness, but they're also the largest age group that's not seeking mental health services. That actually shocked me when I figured that out couple years back, just because I thought young people younger than me were talking about mental health. I thought there was less stigma. And I think there is, but there's a huge disconnect from the user experience, especially as younger folks are looking to swipe left and right in terms of ease of... and a lot of things that they do in this world and engaging with services. And so I think in terms of companies that are going to succeed in this space and the mental health industry, they're going to one focus on the user experience and the user pain points. But two, I think it's so critical that any company in this field in mental health is solving this supply and demand imbalance, because that's not going anytime soon. There's still going to be... There's just going to be continuous increase in demand for patients seeking therapy and a limited supply.
I mean, we can retrain more therapists or train more folks to study psychology, but that imbalance isn't going to go away soon. Companies are going to win or are going to have a solution solving that imbalance.
And I think you hit it right on the point there where that particular age demographic of 18 to 25 are coming from some place. And in particular with that swipe left, swipe right, we have a group of young people in our current formal education system that have been inundated with a lot of technologies and a lot of platforms to use through the pandemic as well as those social emotional needs that they have that they are going to either tomorrow or next year be part of that age demographic. And that's where I think the need for solutions like yourself, while it may seem it's for one particular group, it really is broadened and can really help a lot of different people.
I want to thank you for coming, for lending your time, for letting us listen in a little bit about Unmute and what it does and how it can potentially help many different people from many different groups and giving us an insight into your story about how you started in this.
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