by: Odochi Ibe
It's been two years, and the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend every facet of our lives, forcing people to find ways to cope with the uncertainty of the future. And while the pandemic negatively impacted the mental health of people throughout the country, unique and significant stressors impacted and continue to affect Black, AAPI, Latinx, Indigenous, and people of color.1
Historically marginalized communities have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19, which has exacerbated historic medical inequalities. However, access to culturally competent therapists can be difficult.
Inaccessibility, stigmas surrounding mental health, and the lack of culturally competent and responsive therapists make finding support a challenge for many. Although nearly 42% of people in the United States are BIPOC, 13.5% are immigrants, and 4.5% identify as LGBTQ+2—86% of therapists are White, and 90% of therapists identify as heterosexual, according to the APA.3
To address this need, innovators have begun creating platforms that increase visibility and access to mental health professionals who practice with an intersectional lens and are committed to equitable and accessible therapy.
Verywell Mind continues to highlight those creating a positive change in their communities by acknowledging the unsung heroes bettering the mental health of those around them.
Meet Asini & Colleen
Asini Wijewardane and Colleen Leung are the founders of Unmute, a site dedicated to demystifying mental health and using artificial intelligence to match people with therapists. They are particularly focusing on those kept out of the therapy narrative to find the help they need, or as they refer to them, "muted communities."
According to Unmute, muted communities are ones that, "often culturally or economically, have been kept silent in mental health conversations. These groups, unsurprisingly, are also at the highest risk for marginalization and systemic oppression in many other areas."
First and Second-Generation Immigrants
Alternative family structures/Polyamory
Five years ago, Leung found herself in uncharted territory when her mother became deeply depressed, even having suicidal ideations, which prompted her to fly home to Hawaii from Boston to help stabilize her mother. As a first-generation Chinese-American, speaking openly about mental health was taboo.
"Stereotypically, we didn't speak about mental health in my family," Leung said. "So I had no clue I had mental health, in addition to physical health, until my mid-20s when my mom became depressed. I thought, I'm just going to find my mom a therapist that's trained to treat depression, she'll be healed, and great, we can carry on."
However, she didn't expect to face so many obstacles in finding a therapist her mother could relate to: someone female, ideally Chinese, who spoke her language. Leung knew that the cultural pressures at the root of her mother's depression wouldn't be understood by just anyone.
After nearly a dozen calls to doctors, she found a Taiwanese woman that she hoped would be a fit. But weeks after returning to Boston, she was shocked to receive word from her mother's doctor that she'd not attended her sessions.
"I called my mom like, 'What the heck?' and she said, 'I don't like her, I think I can heal my own depression… I'm not into this whole therapy thing,'" Leung said. "She wasn't interested in trying again, and I thought it was my fault because I got the match wrong; that's when I realized how important that match is for patient success."
She wasn't interested in trying again, and I thought it was my fault because I got the match wrong; that's when I realized how important that match is for patient success. — COLLEEN LEUNG, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO OF UNMUTE
Therapeutic alliance, or the measure of collaboration and partnership between therapist and client, is an essential factor in mental health treatment, according to research. Studies have shown that mental health treatments can be significantly more effective when clients feel their therapist values, honors, and works with an understanding and respect for their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.4
Coupled with this knowledge and a desire to understand her own mental health while fulfilling an unmet need in her community, Leung decided to tap into her network to create a mental health platform. Then, a few years ago, she crossed paths with fellow Babson College MBA alumnus Asini Wijewardane, a Sri Lankan woman from the United Kingdom, at a bar where Leung was meeting a friend for Unmute's user research.
Leung ended up interviewing all of the woman's friends, including Wijewardane, and was struck by her intelligence and background. She brought Wijewardane on board to help organize ideas and create a game plan.
Unmute launched during the pandemic when more people began searching for help with their mental health. A national health interview survey conducted by the CDC found that the percentage of adults who had received any mental treatment in the past 12 months significantly increased from 19.2% in 2019 to 20.3% in 2020."5
The co-founders said there has always been a need for these services. Now, people are searching for healthy ways to cope with the stressors of the pandemic, a recession, and the ongoing racial trauma.
"[Asini and I] went on our Instagrams and told people, 'Life's tough right now; if you're looking for a therapist, let me help you,'" Leung said. "We would have a Zoom with our close friends and family and help them find a therapist manually so we could understand what people care about."
[Asini and I] went on our Instagrams and told people, 'Life's tough right now; if you're looking for a therapist, let me help you. — COLLEEN LEUNG
They combined that knowledge with technology to create a matching algorithm between people and the therapists they want. Users fill out a detailed questionnaire that asks about various aspects of their life and allows them to write in any specifics they're looking for in their provider. After paying a $25 matching fee, they receive five recommendations from a Therabuddy. Therabuddies are guides who use their lived experience to help users navigate their therapy experience by helping choose the therapist, answering questions, and sharing tips.
"Our team of Therabuddies are essentially case managers who run the information through our algorithm to match to our internal database of therapists…or go on to these existing current sites like PsychologyToday," says Leung. "They'll reach out to therapists [to ensure] they are a good match based on the intake.. on behalf of the patient or the client. Once the therapist responds, we'll let the user know and connect them via e-mail. We do a three-week and six-month follow-up to maintain that it was a good match or that they've successfully completed therapy."
Since its inception, Unmute has created results that surpassed its expectations:
The Unmute Difference
97% of their clients feel highly compatible with their therapist
92% found their match in two or fewer consultations
100% have returned for their second appointment
Leung says that she's happy that the feedback has been positive. They're hoping partnerships and therapist referrals will reduce their issue of finding enough culturally competent providers for their directory.
"We just signed a partnership with Asian Mental Health Project which brought in about 30 new users in one week…but we're still facing statistics showing more than 80% of therapists in the U.S. are White," she says. "Right now, we have our own database of therapists that we retain and train; we're providing culturally competent [teachings] for them so they can better serve the communities we market to and partner with."
Leung implemented ad-hoc diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops when she realized that some of the markers she thought she needed, such as race, weren't as crucial for her therapist-client relationship. She then began focusing on the A.I. and data collection that's served those on her platform so well, but the team wants to do more to help people—which is their primary goal.
As the platform grows, Leung is hoping to license their algorithm by partnering with insurance companies so when people go to search for a therapist via insurance, it's powered by Unmute.
"At the end of the day, I started this maybe a year and a half ago, during the pandemic, I had just gotten laid off my job, actually, and thought I was gonna go back into the workforce," says Leung. "But then I had this idea; I was doing market research…and I decided to put myself in this full time."
"And every day for me, I keep driving because of the individual lives that we get to impact. And I know it sounds so corny, but literally, if this fails, I don't really even care because, at the end of the day, I can say today we served 426 patients, and that's incredible."
American Psychological Association. Stress in America™ 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.
Mental Health America. Infographic: BIPOC And LGBTQ+ Mental Health.
American Psychological Association. 2015 APA survey of psychology health service providers.
Treatment (US) C for SA. Core Competencies for Counselors and Other Clinical Staff. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health Treatment Among Adults: United States, 2020.