If you have struggled to find help during a challenging time, watched a friend or family member suffer from mental illness, or have been surprised to learn about the challenges of navigating insurance and finding the right care, you know that getting support when you need it most can be at best, frustrating, and at worst completely impossible.

As I’ve navigated my own mental health journey and supported loved ones impacted by mental illness, I’ve seen time and again how difficult it is to find the right care, in a confusing and opaque system. And I know that I am not alone — 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. In 2016, 45 million Americans struggled with their mental health — less than half of them received care.

I joined Two Chairs in January 2018 because I believe we can build a better system — one where seeking support is a seamless experience, and something you can talk about, without shame. As a Product Manager focused on Clinical Services, I’ve spent the last fifteen months working alongside a growing team of talented technologists and some of the best clinicians in the space. In my role, I get to pursue a mission that is deeply personal to me, and presents exciting challenges every day.

At Two Chairs, we’re building a world where we all have access to exceptional mental healthcare. To do so, we have to think about product development a bit differently. We combine the power of technology with thoughtful physical spaces and in-person interactions to create an integrated client experience — one that puts people at the center.

Making Connections

Most people looking for a therapist are faced with a laundry list of phone numbers. When I’ve tried to find a therapist in the past, it was near impossible to know if anyone on that long list was a good fit for my needs, had availability to see me, or was someone with whom I’d feel comfortable sharing my most vulnerable thoughts Frankly, I had no idea what “a good fit for my needs” actually meant. Add to that the complexity of insurance, the high cost of care, and the still-pervasive stigma around mental illness in many communities. It’s enough to force many people to simply give up.

But one of the things that excites me about my job is the fact that great clinical care already exists — and it has for a long time. I know this, because I’ve experienced the impact of therapy on my own recovery from mental illness. And, because I get to work with talented clinicians like Dr. Hannah Klempner and Dr. Katrina Roundfield every day. The role of my team is to figure out how to connect clients to the right therapist — one who can make all the difference in their journey — and do that at scale.

To get there, we started by designing an end-to-end client experience that is all about making connections. We know from decades of research that success in therapy depends on the strength of the therapeutic relationship. This makes sense, since therapy uses conversations to enable healing and change. But a great relationship depends on a variety of factors. Clinical expertise is very important — so are less straightforward things like therapy style, personality, and a clinician’s background. Put another way, your clinician might be trained to treat what you are struggling with, but if you don’t agree on how to work together, feel comfortable with their style, or know they can relate to your lived experience, you’re unlikely to make as much progress in therapy.

This is an exciting product problem because software and data science are powerful tools for matching based on a diverse set of inputs. But, they are less well-suited to helping a client who has never been to therapy articulate what clinical style might work for them. Therapists (surprise!) are excellent at reading people and understanding the nuances of their needs. To create great matches, we knew we needed intelligent software and an in-person conversation with a highly qualified clinician.

A welcoming physical space, well-designed matching tools, and an in-person conversation with an expert clinician can work together powerfully, creating access to great care and building the foundation for healing in therapy. But all three are critical — which means I get to spend my days as a PM working alongside our Clinical Program Director and engineering team to tweak the algorithm in our matching tool, talking to clinicians about how the needs of our clients are changing, rethinking our communications with clients before their first appointment, and collaborating with our Clinic Design team to update the experience of walking into our clinic for the first time.

Elevating Care Through Collaboration

Since access is a critical issue, our early product efforts focused on connecting clients to high quality care. But there is so much more we can do to create great client experiences and de-stigmatize going to therapy.

First, we are continuing to evolve our matching software and learn from our data to improve match quality. This is one of the best parts of growing as fast as we are — the more clients we see, the better we get at matching. Our team is also working to re-imagine the matching process. What if the match could happen in real-time, in the room, instead of after the client has already gone home? How might that impact the client experience? What tools do we need to build to enable real-time matching, and how would clinicians use them? These are some of the questions we tackle every day as a product team.

Second, accessing care is not just about finding the right clinician. Navigating insurance and paying for therapy can be incredibly burdensome. The Care Coordination team at Two Chairs play a crucial role in guiding and orchestrating client care. Today, we’ve developed software to help our Care Coordinators submit reimbursement claims for clients. As we look forward, we’ll work to provide clients with insurance estimates up front — so when they come in for their Consult Appointment, they know what to expect. And, armed with the client’s budget and insurance estimate, their consult clinician can recommend a service or frequency of care that works for their finances from the start. To get there, we need the right data and tools available to our team at the right touch points in every client’s journey with us.

Third, we’re deepening the collaboration between Product and the team that designs our clinics. By building safe, inclusive environments where clients feel at home, we’re seeking to break down stigma associated with going to therapy. Alex Maceda, a former PM at Everlane who leads Brand & Spaces at Two Chairs, works closely with the Product team. She often talks about making clients feel cared for: in her words, “what goes on within the therapy room can be hard or stressful — so how can we make every other part of the experience smooth and delightful? For us, this means using both digital and physical touch points to create the most seamless client experience in mental health.” Today we focus on making your arrival easy through automated emails that tell you where to park, and hot tea on hand when you arrive. In the future, we might send you a tailored meditation at the end of your appointment, so you can take a moment to recenter before heading back to work. Delivering on these experiences requires close collaboration across product, engineering, clinic design, and our team of therapists.

Through seamless client experiences, we’re showing our clients that seeking care should never be pathologized or stigmatized. It shouldn’t be something to hide or dread. It should be elevated, as the best thing you do for yourself.

Product at Two Chairs

Every Two Chairs employee receives a book on their first day of work, titled Reclaiming Conversation. Written by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, it encapsulates the importance of a software product’s purpose — does it take us away from each other and into our screens, or does it bring us closer together and free more time for impactful, human interaction? For us, technology must always do the latter. Every day, we come to work focused on experiences that foster human connection and interpersonal growth.

Product and engineering at Two Chairs means building products and experiences that improve in-person care. To get there, we know we can’t just develop products for our clinicians — so we co-design with them, at every step. And we’re not done when we ship a new feature. We’re all about sitting down and building relationships with our clinicians, putting ourselves in the shoes of our clients, and spending time in our clinics to make sure we get it right.

There is no playbook for what we are doing, which is part of what makes our work fun. But, we do know that when we combine best-in-class software with thoughtful physical spaces and digital design, we put human connection between clients and clinicians at the center. For me, building experiences that allow people to connect and heal through therapy has been the most meaningful work of my career.

We all deserve access to exceptional mental healthcare. To get there, we need a team of developers, product managers, and designers whose lived experiences are as diverse as those of our clients. And we’re having a lot of fun solving hard problems along the way. If you are interested in joining us, email [email protected]!