As Avishai Afek, MS ’21, worked on his GSE master’s degree in mental health counseling, he discovered and followed an unexpected, entrepreneurial path. In the months ahead, he will launch StartWell, a business he created at UB to address a fundamental mental health care problem: How to find a good therapist when the process for finding one can be confusing.
From idea to design and launch, the UB community has worked like a startup network to support Afek—with inspiration, a student entrepreneur fellowship and technical design help from computer science students.
“I’m glad that UB as a community was able to rally around and promote his vision,” said Sabrina Musson, program director for the mental health counseling program and clinical assistant professor of counseling, school and educational psychology. “I’m very excited about it. It has the potential to be revolutionary within mental health counseling.”
Afek's MyStartWell.com interface, now in development, will be a nod to Match.com, but with mental health, rather than romance, as its goal. It will assess users’ needs and ask them about objectives and preferences in therapy. They will be able choose whether they’d like to work with someone who is focused on the past or present. They can also select a style: Would they like empathetic listening or more challenging work toward specific goals? Do they want to direct the session? Or, would they prefer the therapist to lead? Based on choices like these, prospective clients will then be connected with mental health practitioners who have the right skills, approach and specialty.
“I want someone to find a good therapist on their first try,” said Afek who is now working with the Upstate incubator Launch NY.
“I want to transform this clunky, convoluted mental health system. I want to make a difference for thousands, if not millions of people.”
He also wants to simplify the process so that people can avoid phone tag and book appointments immediately online. Once a match is made, the site will coordinate payment and allow people to track their progress in therapy. Users will be able to assess things like mood, their relationship with the therapist and objectives.
“A good working alliance is made up of at least two things: an actual rapport and working on the same goals,” said Afek. “We’re not just here to help you start well. We’re also here to help you stay well.”
The system will charge counseling professionals and health insurance companies. Therapists will pay a fee to participate. “We’ll take care of scheduling and billing and help you match with clients you most want to work with,” Afek explained.
Finding the right counselor traditionally has been so difficult, people often give up looking, he said. Navigating to a professional, who has the right mix of rapport, ability to address particular needs and aligns with health insurance, can be frustrating, confusing and expensive.
“One in three people drop out of therapy after their first session… The more alarming statistic: Two thirds of people who have mental health issues don’t even seek out treatment,” Afek said. “There’s no real process.”
Musson agrees. There are not good options for an organized approach to searching for a therapist who can address all the variables unique to each person. This problem has long been in need of a solution.
“The first steps are really hard. You can Google something but you’re really navigating blind on finding the right person and finding the right fit,” she said. “Different counselors lean different ways. It’s important to have the right fit.”
Afek stepped into his new role as mental health entrepreneur gradually, with key inspiration from GSE. He arrived at UB in the fall of 2019 to start the mental health counseling program after working for three years in a residential home for people with mental illness and addiction.
During orientation, before classes started, he was inspired by Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs, chief diversity officer and associate professor of higher education. She asked students to consider what kind of impact they wanted to make on the world.
As he studied, a theme emerged. Afek was learning how the mental health care system did not have a streamlined approach to finding therapists. By developing a fix, he realized he could potentially impact even more people than by counseling individuals.
“When I learned… that this whole process is really complex, I thought back to what Dr. Pope said: ‘What impact do I want to make?’ I started thinking beyond the therapy session,” Afek said.
Curious for a better understanding of systemic failings, he took a class in health care strategy and operations in the School of Management. Then, a few weeks into his second semester, an email came through describing the yearlong Western New York Prosperity Fellowship for students working on entrepreneurial projects.
Afek became the first fellow from GSE’s mental health counseling program. He took advantage of trainings and opportunities, like a six-week summer “accelerator” for people planning startups. It was part of Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurial program for UB students.
Earlier this year, Afek got more support when he pitched his idea to graduate students in a class called “Project Development,” or CSE 611, in the Computer Science and Engineering Department of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. They liked the concept so much, a team of four decided to work on a website design and gain experience in startup development. At the end of this semester, they presented a working prototype.
“It’s been super exciting to watch this idea grow from an idea in my head to reality,” Afek said. “It’s just been wild to see how much has happened in one year.”
While it is not yet matching clients with therapists, MyStartWell.com does have a market research survey with questions for people about what problems or difficulties they’ve faced while seeking therapy. “We hope to identify which people would most benefit from our service,” said Afek.
So far, results from about 200 respondents highlight the need for better tools:
This confirms Afek’s personal experience during the pandemic. Even he struggled, as a professional in training, to find therapists for friends who asked. “I got a headache when I tried to help them,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking when you want to find a therapist and then can’t.”
Afek also knows perseverance pays off. He’s worked with counselors since he was a teen: The experience was transformative.
“I know the impact a good therapist can have,” he said. “A therapist is a huge ally in helping you take a better look at yourself and how you can lead a better life.”