Therapists — if you can even find one that takes your insurance or new clients — can add a layer of sadness to your wallet, even if you’re trying to right your own mental health issues. ShareWell believes it has an alternative outlook, with a much more affordable peer support model, putting it somewhere between special interest forums and online communities, coaching and therapy. The company’s position is that people who are in the same proverbial boat can offer each other support (but emphatically no advice!)
“I started ShareWell because peer support really helped me through what was probably the most difficult phase of my life,” founder and CEO CeCe Cheng said in an interview with australiabusinessblog.com. “During the pandemic, I was in what I would call an emotionally abusive relationship. I had a therapist that I worked with and she was very helpful, but when I was going through it I didn’t really want to talk about it with my friends. I felt a lot of shame; sometimes even the best-meaning friends couldn’t understand exactly what I was going through.”
Cheng wanted to come up with a better solution for that, to combat her own isolation in her experience, but also to create a tool that allows people to lean on each other using existing modalities. She points to other successful peer-based support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I looked online and it was shocking how little I could find; I found dead links, a lack of information and frustration,” says Cheng. “A lot of times there was just a zoom link that you joined at a certain point and hoped other people showed up. Sometimes three people showed up; other times it was 20. It just didn’t feel very safe. I did find some Reddit forums and Facebook groups, which I thought was pretty shocking in this day and age, that there was no better place to go.
People need all the help they can get. The pandemic exacerbated an already critical mental health crisis, leading to a 25% increase in depression and anxiety nationally while 77% of Americans live in counties where mental health care is difficult to access. The company wants to offer an alternative, with live human support that is effective, affordable and accessible.
ShareWell told australiabusinessblog.com it raised a $1.3 million pre-seed round, including investment from Adrian Aoun, CEO and co-founder of Forward; Kyle Vogt, co-founder of Twitch and CEO and co-founder of Cruise; Russell Simmons, former CTO and co-founder of Yelp; Margo Georgiadis, former CEO of Ancestry.com; Charlie Cheever, former CTO and co-founder of Quora; Rob Hayes, first investor in Uber; and silent capital.
That’s a great lineup of investors, and it speaks to Cheng’s deep roots in Silicon Valley; before splitting from her investing career and founding this company, she was with FirstRound Capital and Makers Fund.
Personally, I’m skeptical of turning to the internet for help and advice given the general quality of information available online, but Cheng assures me that the company has thought about safety from the bottom up.
“We built a video and community platform with our own safety features. For the video sessions we have the rule of three, which means that each virtual session needs a host and at least two participants to start the session. If at any point someone drops out and it drops below three, everyone goes to a waiting room,” says Cheng. “The site prohibits one-to-one communication everywhere, which in itself limits abuse cases. We also have sitewide blocking; if there’s something that makes you uncomfortable, you can block someone and you’ll never be in a session with that person again, you won’t see their forum posts; they are completely blocked. There are also reporting and highlighting features throughout. We also have a host and session rating feature. Bad actors are flagged, blocked and reported, and if that happens multiple times, the team intervenes. We didn’t really have to do that, because the community regulates itself.’
The company’s special sauce is in how it feels about the peer group system and its rules. The most important aspect is to only share your own experiences, rather than giving advice to the other people in the conversation.
“We define peer support as sharing experience, not advice. That’s the most important rule in our Community Guidelines. We are here to share experiences and support each other. We can relate to things we’ve learned from our personal or professional experiences, but it’s against the rules to give advice, make a diagnosis, etc.,’ says Cheng. However, she also says that no one from ShareWell monitors active sessions. “Anyone can create and host a peer support session after attending one session on the platform. We have a lot of training material for hosts and we support the hosts.”
The company told me that in cases where someone is clearly struggling and needs professional help, the hosts should not encourage someone to seek the help of a therapist or other professional.
“Straight away [asking someone to seek professional help] is frowned upon, because that crosses the line of giving advice, but if I saw someone who I thought needed therapy, I would probably talk about my own experience of how therapy really got me through certain things,” Cheng said. “We believe that in the future we can refer people to modalities beyond peer support. We already see people wanting coaching and therapy etc., but we see peer support as the home base of the community, and from there we connect people with resources outside of ShareWell.”