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Finding Your Therapy Match With Alyssa Petersel    

Finding Your Therapy Match With Alyssa Petersel

Art by FISK

On April 14, Alyssa Petersel, the founder and CEO of the therapy matching service MyWellbeing, will be taking over The Local Optimist Hotline. She will be answering your questions (you can start submitting them now) and offering helpful insights on the therapy process or anything else you’ve ever wanted to ask a therapist. To help you get familiar with Petersel and her work beforehand, we spoke with her about her therapist journey. 

By Meadowlark Monaghan

About seven months ago, I started noticing friends and acquaintances reaching out more often to inquire about therapy. Easily the most consistently asked question when trying to find a therapist was, “why does this feel like dating?” 

Alyssa Petersel felt the exact same way trying to find a therapist while in school to become a therapist. Then, she realized that was the trick. The key to successful therapy is rapport, as the mental health world calls it. In layman’s terms: it’s chemistry, baby. And thus, Alyssa’s aha moment to bring more accessible, successful therapy was born. 

Petersel is the founder of MyWellbeing, a service that helps find the best therapist or coach for you by matching you based on a quiz. Yes, just like the Match.com of therapy! But, so much better! We spoke with Petersel about every step of the therapy process, how to know when a provider is right for you, and how matching and cultural implications can come into play. 

Before becoming a social worker, what was your experience with therapy? How was your relationship to mental health growing up? 

Anxiety is no stranger to me. Growing up, I’d flirted with therapy a number of times before becoming a social worker myself. While in undergrad, I tried to find a therapist who was a good fit for me. First, there was a 6-month waitlist at my university, and then, there was a provider who kept asking me the same question week over week, so much so that I eventually stopped going because I did not feel heard or seen. It wasn’t until I started graduate school (when I started training to become a therapist) that I pursued finding my own therapist again. I must have called 30 people before receiving a call back.

Needless to say, my first few interactions with therapy are not my fondest memories. Still, as a recovering perfectionist with type-A tendencies and ambitious goals for the future, I knew that I wanted to prioritize finding someone who “got me” to talk to regularly because I’d need it for my stress management. After some more patience, diligence, and thorough vetting, I began working with a therapist who helped me to understand some of the narratives I was repeating to myself unknowingly, some of the family dynamics I was holding on to, and many of the intricacies between the lines. I am now more grounded, motivated, and balanced than I’ve ever been.

Each of those experiences laid the foundation for my unwavering commitment to design a system for people to connect with the right therapist for them in a fast, efficient, and personalized way and to further build on MyWellbeing to reduce stigma and create connection and conversation around mental health.

How did you know you wanted to be a therapist? 

I’ve always been driven to reduce suffering as much as possible. As a teenager, I volunteered with my mom at women’s shelters. I entered college wanting to be a biomedical engineer to build prosthetic limbs for war survivors (it only took a few weeks for me to realize that I did not thrive in a lab and far preferred working with people). After college, through community organizing and publishing a book, I realized the power of storytelling – the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves – to shape and reshape our understanding of the world and our place in it. I knew then that if we all had more understanding of our own stories and the stories of others, we’d gain more power and control to recreate a future of our choosing. 

What was it about traditional therapy that made you want to start MyWellbeing?

Inherent to therapy’s success is the relationship between the therapist and the person going to therapy. Similar to dating, or friendship, when you meet someone who you have chemistry with, the conversation flows, and you feel a sense of belonging, even if you’ve just recently met. Unlike dating and friendship, though, your therapist is a licensed, trained professional who is there exclusively to support you in learning more about yourself, healing, and growing. You can share things with your therapist that you would not share on a date or with your friends. There may be feedback that your therapist will give you that your friends or your partner(s) would not.

Often, in therapy, we are hoping to work through something human. Perhaps a relationship with a partner, friend, or family member. Perhaps conflict at work or our relationship with ourselves. I fundamentally believe that the best way to work through a human dynamic is with another human. We rely so much on technology in so many areas of our lives; human healing is best facilitated with other humans.

Now, to find that human, that’s where technology can help. We have built clinically informed and proven algorithms that filter out the noise in the search – for both seekers and providers – so that you can connect with the right therapist for you, depending on your needs, without needing to make the 30+ calls that I once did. Along the way, you have community, content, and support from MyWellbeing as additional resources.

Our healthcare system is a lot more reactive than proactive, and sometimes mental health work is the same way, even when we know that’s the wrong approach! Why is it less costly (financially and emotionally) to invest in proactive mental health than to dig yourself out of burnout or low place? 

We are conditioned as a society– especially in large urban areas– to push ourselves beyond our limit until our body physically pushes back. We put much more weight on physical health complications and symptoms than we do on mental health signals of trouble. So much so that sometimes, it takes reaching a steep low to give ourselves time and space to properly address our stress, process, understand, and heal.

The trouble here is that generally, climbing out of crisis can be more time- and resource-consuming – and of higher consequence – than proactively addressing and managing our stress. For example, stress can behave like shaking a carbonated beverage. A subtle shake can be fine. It can simmer down if not shaken too much more in a short period of time. If you shake, and shake, and shake, and then open the bottle, the mess of the spill-over is a lot more burdensome to clean than it would have been to allow the beverage to settle and reach a renewed baseline.

Similarly, if we invest in something like therapy proactively, we have space, resources, and available mind and body energy to realize patterns and troubleshoot solutions. When we are reacting responsively, our first priority needs to be to come out of crisis. We’re in survival mode –fight or flight. Our systems are low on fuel, so it will take us more time and resources to come out of crisis than it would have to prevent it. From a work perspective, if you burn out, recovering from burnout can take months or years, whereas preventing burnout can take a proactive one hour per week. You have control over setting boundaries around and getting your work done in the spaces between.

You essentially play matchmaker between clients and therapists. How do you “match” folks with providers? Why is it important to have synergy or compatibility with your provider? 

We match people to the right therapist or coach for them by taking a number of factors into consideration. Things like:

  • Availability
  • Fee
  • Racial identity
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • The style of the provider
  • The issue areas the provider specializes in
  • In-person or remote preferences

When someone is interested in finding a therapist or coach, they share their preferences with MyWellbeing through a fast, easy, and personalized flow, after which they receive three curated matches that are likely to be strong fits. The matching is completely free, as is a complimentary phone consultation with each match to further confirm fit and move forward into care.

We landed on these factors by having real conversations with thousands of therapy-seekers. We are regularly updating and improving our process, as well, to ensure that the fit is as strong as it can be.

Rapport is responsible for more than 70% of why therapy works. We conducted a study with a subset of MyWellbeing members to find that people who meet their therapist through MyWellbeing stay in therapy 75% longer than people who find their therapist through other channels. In other words: our matching works.

When should someone start therapy? 

There is never a wrong time to start therapy, and there are so many opportunities to grow and gain when you do begin.

If you are thinking about therapy, curious about it, or proactively want to learn more about yourself through dedicated time and space just for you, start therapy. If you are going through something that’s challenging you, that’s distracting you, that’s taking more from you than you’re able to refill on your own, start therapy. If you’ve experienced hardship, a loss, a transition, or you’re gearing up for anticipated changes and stressors, start therapy. If you want to be a better leader, partner, family member, parent, friend, start therapy. It’s a tremendous privilege and asset that I believe we’re on our way to viewing as more of the launchpad that it is.

How do you know if someone is the *right* therapist for you? 

This is a great question that will vary tremendously depending on the person. Your answer, and your unique needs, may also change over time, depending on where you are. For example: for one person, it may be extremely supportive and exactly what you need for therapy to primarily be a place where you are seen, heard, and validated. For another person, you may feel that you have an excess of “yes people” and affirmation in your day-to-day, and your best fit will be a provider who challenges you to think outside of your perspective and challenges your expectations and assumptions. 

At a minimum, you want to feel like you can share openly with your therapist. You want to feel as though they are listening, hearing you, and increasingly understanding you and your perspective and lived experience over time.

When or if you feel misunderstood, you want to be able to talk with your therapist about that. When or if you have questions, you want to be able to ask them. Your therapist may not know all of the answers (they are human, too), but you will feel a sense of chemistry and belonging. You will come out of your work together– over time because all good things take time– with more insight, learning, and understanding of yourself and the various factors that you want to work through.

How do you know when therapy is “working”?

First things first: you’re unlikely to know whether therapy is “working” right away. Prepare to invest a little bit of time. 

After your first session with your therapist, you might feel relief. Overwhelm. Intrigue. Curiosity. Doubt. Truly any number of feelings. This is completely normal.

I would expect that after some period of time– it may be three weeks, it may be three months, it may be three– something will happen to you or around you, and you will react differently than you’re used to. Something that perhaps usually would throw you off your tracks? You will feel more space and composure. Something that would tick you off and cause a fight with your partner? All of a sudden, in that moment, you aren’t as triggered.

You won’t necessarily know exactly when that moment will come, but when it does, you will feel it. And all of the work will have been worth it.

This May, you are running a campaign to raise funds for free mental health care for people of color. Tell us more!

Many people don’t realize that while communities of color face higher rates of trauma, there is a severe shortage of providers of color in the behavioral health market, making demand for therapy by people of color higher than average and their ability to secure culturally competent care more challenging.

At the same time, there is a pay gap in the therapy industry between white therapists and therapists of color because therapists of color are under more pressure to slide their fees to provide care that the communities they care about can access.

This May, we are partnering with leading brands and individual advocates to sponsor free mental health care for people of color, by therapists of color. We will be compensating providers their full rate and providing free access to what we call Grounding Groups for people of color.

If you are interested in making an impact together, email our team at connect@mywellbeing.com.

How can the mental health space cater more to racial and cultural impacts on mental health?  

Speaking to the shortage of therapists of color in the industry, the mental health space needs to be doing more to sponsor education stipends for people of color who are passionate about mental health and interested in training to enter the field as a provider, but cannot afford tuition (which is exorbitantly high for the expected return in salary).

We need to stop assuming that we know better or that we know the answer, and we need to ask people, to the best of our ability, what they need. When someone wants additional support, one person may want a chicken soup delivery, and the next person may want you to do their laundry. What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. It’s important that we initiate conversations with open-ended questions geared toward learning and empathy for others’ experiences and needs, not our own.

We also need to stop assuming that things like racism and hate crimes are only “someone else’s” problem. We all have a history and a relationship with systemic racism. We need to understand and unpack our history, what we have internalized, and begin to challenge our own assumptions and commitments to do better to ensure change without over-burdening “others” to do all of the work.

Why does mental health matter? 

Mental health is with us all day, every day. Without mental health, we have nothing. We’ve all heard, seen and read the stories of people we admire, people who are exceptionally talented, physically fit, popular, successful, and then some, who still, have mental health. They may be unhappy. They may not be fulfilled. They may be grieving or processing and healing from trauma. They may be feeling suicidal.

No matter how “together” things seem externally, we don’t know what someone else’s full story is, and we don’t need to perform like superheroes without a break or without support until we’re at our wit’s end. We all need to prioritize taking care of ourselves and each other, or we’ll significantly cut short our potential, and that is just not worth it.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.) 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.