Mental Health Awareness Month: The Future We Imagine

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BY|Mark Frank View Bio|21st May 2019

The United States has observed May as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949 and the national message is that mental illnesses are common, treatable and mental health is essential to overall health and well-being. For SonderMind, this May is marked by a high degree of enthusiasm as we expand into new states to continue pursuing our vision of redesigning behavioral health to be more accessible, approachable and utilized.

Every day, we are working to integrate the various broken parts of the behavioral healthcare system in our country. Our goal is to help all constituents of the healthcare system work together to improve everyone’s mental wellness. My hope is that this overview of SonderMind’s long-term vision will provide context for how we are working to build a world where the stigma around mental health issues is completely gone and everyone has access to high-quality, clinically-appropriate and affordable care.

Part I – The Future We Imagine

At SonderMind, every employee can recite our vision to redesign behavioral health to be more accessible, approachable and utilized. More importantly, we organize our activities around this vision on a daily basis. The phrase “redesigning behavioral health” is meant literally – we believe that the problems associated with behavioral health are systemic and must be addressed by simultaneously working within the existing healthcare ecosystem and by creating a compelling offering for you and the clients we serve together. When I say “existing healthcare ecosystem,” I’m referring to the world of insurance companies, medical doctors, hospitals, mental health centers, self-insured employers, along with the whole slew of other constituents who deliver quality healthcare services to patients.

We believe that by getting into the mud and creating both incremental and step-function changes, we can realize the SonderMind vision. Our belief is that we’ll have “made it” when:

  • The stigma around mental health is gone. People will be able to name their primary mental health provider, just as they can name their primary care physician, dentist or child’s pediatrician. No one will be afraid to seek behavioral health care; rather, it will be easy and an expected part of an individual’s care plan. We will have changed the dialogue around mental health between friends, family and colleagues.
  • In addition to the removal of stigma, the rising metrics around negative mental health issues will have been reversed: the rate of clinical anxiety and depression will have been reduced from the current ~25% of U.S. adults; suicide rates will be lower; there will be fewer overdoses, fewer shootings by those suffering from a mental health issue and less prevalence of general apathy. Mental and physical health data will be linked to drive better outcomes and reduce overall population health costs – a trend due to decreased conjoining healthcare costs (emergency room visits, comorbidities) and increased healthcare treatment adherence.
  • The prestige and compensation for being a behavioral health provider will increase in parallel. More providers will enter the field and the increased number of providers will enable them to focus on more specific areas of treatment, achieving better clinical outcomes. Therapists will no longer need to struggle to do what they love in a private practice setting – they will belong to a community where they know that they can turn to their peers and to SonderMind for support and companionship.
  • Individuals can immediately access a variety of treatment options and be guided toward the appropriate intervention, all without going broke. Consumers will be knowledgeable about where to find information about the right care for their needs and preferences; with this enhanced knowledge about options for their mental wellness, consumers will be empowered to make individualized choices based on their own needs and preferences.
  • SonderMind will be a key driver of evidenced-based, high-quality behavioral healthcare. Providers will have multiple intervention tools at their fingertips and enjoy feedback about which tools show the highest efficacy for different clients and issues. SonderMind will be ubiquitous with behavioral health that can be easily accessed, approached and utilized.

While this may seem a bit lofty, consider that just 6-7 years ago the option to get a ride to or from the airport was generally limited to friends, taxis and shuttle services. Merely 10 years ago, only 25% of Americans had a smartphone, and 15 years ago almost 40% of American adults didn’t even use the Internet! We are confident that by working with our various partners and dedicated providers, we can create a world that reflects our vision above.

Part II – The Origin Story

I’m often asked how and why SonderMind began. Hopefully our roots will provide even further context for our mission. This journey actually started a decade ago, as I was in the throes of starting my first healthcare venture, a treatment facility that utilized a unique radiation therapy procedure to treat patients with (among other diagnoses) brain tumors, lung cancer and prostate cancer. At the same time, my younger sister was also starting her business as a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Atlanta, having worked for a few years as a full-time LPC at a non-profit mental health agency. To put it simply, she was already an amazing clinician, but despised the “business work” associated with running her practice. Her frustrations planted the first tiny seed for SonderMind in my head at that time.

Only a few years later, another set of experiences planted the second seed. I was seeking out a behavioral health provider and, given how much I was paying for my health insurance, was determined to use my benefits with an in-network provider. Little did I know what a struggle this would become. After contacting providers from the list populated in my insurance directory, the normal response was “I’m not accepting new clients” or “I don’t take that insurance anymore.” Over the course of the next four weeks, I contacted more than 15 mental health professionals via this process and finally found one…only to have to wait another three weeks for the first appointment! Along with all of this, the lack of technology integration in the process and during the clinical care really surprised me. As we’ve since learned, all of these problems are systemic and personified by limited access for individuals who must use their existing insurance or employee benefits. Two thoughts kept running through my head: “thank goodness I’m not suffering from a severe mental health crisis” and “I can’t believe this has not been solved.”

As these two seeds began to take root, they became intertwined – the challenges faced by behavioral health professionals seemed directly related to the problem of access and affordability for clients. Ultimately, I began researching with a fervor – talking to my sister’s colleagues and classmates, as well as my cousin (a clinical psychologist, whose husband is a psychiatrist). I spent countless hours reading about the business of behavioral healthcare and applying my understanding of other segments healthcare to possible solutions. The vision for SonderMind began to form, with a focus on making life easier for mental health professionals, while reducing stigma and barriers for clients seeking mental health care.

During this process, it was clear that I needed to find a clinical partner who shared this vision. In what is undoubtedly one of the luckiest breaks of my professional life, my research led me to Sean Boyd, a successful mental health professional who had not only built his own thriving practice, but also had started a successful business serving the needs of therapists in private practice with a strong, community-based offering. He was open to my initial outreach in 2013 and, as I outlined my long-term vision, we quickly found a shared passion for reducing the stigma associated with mental health and making it easier for clinicians to be successful.

By early 2014, Sean and I had formally partnered and formed SonderMind LLC. After spending the first few years building a holistic solution, we realized in 2017 that SonderMind had actually grown into two distinct businesses: SonderMind and SonderCenters. We legally separated the companies at the end of 2017, with SonderMind squarely focused on developing a technology-enabled service that will redesign behavioral health.

I couldn’t be more excited about our team and the amazing providers who have become part of this solution. SonderMind is the largest integrated network of licensed behavioral health professionals in Colorado and we are expanding into new markets this year. We have brought on thoughtful investors, all of whom bring an understanding of how to make an impact in healthcare. With the financial support and guidance from our investors, we are able to drive forward on several expansion and enhancement areas. We are creating a true community where the best providers can practice freely, share information and have access to data about what works and what doesn’t. To quote one of our providers, “I have felt heard, respected and appreciated in every interaction I’ve had with SonderMind and I’m truly proud of being part of the mission to improve mental health access and utilization.” Every day, I’m proud that we inch closer and closer to truly redesigning behavioral health to be more accessible, approachable and utilized.