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We have seen probably the worst bout of mental health ever, with the sudden change to working patterns and forced home-schooling of children being a common theme of the last year.
But when I had the opportunity to speak to Irad Eichler, c0-founder and CEO of Circles, a tech startup whose mission is to improve mental well-being, I wanted to hear his insights into how the conversations around mental health have changed especially in this last year.
“We live in an era where there is a need for mental health solutions. We live in social isolation and grief. The demand for those solutions is increasing but the supply is staying flat” comments Eichler.
Core to Circles is for each group, or ‘Circle’, of participants to be able to speak openly and freely while having a licenced therapist mediate the sessions. All sessions are done remotely to assist with ease of joining and participating and spreads the cost of hiring the therapist between the group members.
Therapists are specialized in different situations, such as: grief over a child; over a parent; a spouse or a sibling. There are other types of Circles too, such as those undergoing redundancy or other non-family specific issues.
The small Circles meet an hour per week, and offline interactions are encouraged between group participants if it helps them. From a purely business standpoint the results are showing too, with repeat attendees over 80% after a month of therapy.
I asked for some stories of people who have seen a positive outcome from Circles. Eichler told me about the story of ‘Esther’, 60-year-old in Tennessee who lost a grandson and husband within a very short timespan. She was paralysed by grief and in her own words “felt no reason to get up in the mornings”. Her outlook brightened up after she had joined one Circle for people grieving over spouses and felt it had helped her so much that she joined another Circle for those grieving lost a grandchild.
Covid-19, a tale of two pandemics
Eichler tells me of the difficulty he had convincing investors about funding a mental well-being platform. Through lack of understanding, or just ignorance to the subject, it was hard to find the resources to help build Circles. But then 2020 came along and it was suddenly a mainstream topic and everyone could relate to matters immediately.
In his words, while the world declared one pandemic, we actually created another one in mental health. He says that he finds nearly everyone has snapped at their own loved ones at some point through stress and anxiety in the last 15 months.
But with the increased exposure to mental health, how may things change going forward? Eichler tells me that even though there is no shame in depressions or traumas, there may be lingering feelings towards it. Being able to have more open conversations to reduce or eliminate shame will break those barriers down.
Social Media and its heavy impact
I think social media has done more to damage people’s mental health than anything else in recent history, and Eichler agrees, adding if the industry had been steered differently it could have brought a huge amount more value to the world, but the way it has ended up and its future is just so damaging.
“Most of the photos of people’s feeds are of happy, successful people. That leaves you with a feeling of emptiness because you feel distance between where you are (i.e. real life) and what they show.”
He gives me a simple yet effective explanation. He differentiates between communicating and connecting, the latter being what Circles aims to bring to its users. In the past when people had a birthday we would used to meet them, and then over time that became calling them, then it became texting and nowadays it’s a generic “happy birthday” on a Facebook feed. This has all devalued the human connection and we have all grown accustomed to not talking to people so much — texting generic messages isn’t connection, as Eichler says bluntly.
So what can people do to improve their mental health on social media? Eichler recommends remove all notifications, even going as far as removing all social media from your devices. If you do need to use social media then recognize that most people have, for better or worse, a social media persona which is different to their real life persona.
Where next for Circles?
The overarching mission for Circles is a noble cause: Making sure nobody feels lonely or emotionally challenged. It’s clear from my conversation with Eichler that he views this last year as one of the most challenging ever for mental health, but it is also one where we have made the most progress.
An unforeseen, yet positive, consequence is that for many people the ability to lead their various circles has allowed them to regain their self-esteem, which is especially important for those groups of participants grieving over career or other life transitions. Eichler wishes to bring Circles to all sorts of regional or local scales so that it can impact as many people as possible.
Whether or not Circles ends up achieving its stated aims remains to be seen, but talking about mental health in a much more open manner must surely be a goal, not just for them, but for everyone.