Listen to how Mindstrong is transforming mental health care

While conversations surrounding mental health have become more prominent in popular culture, there remains a stigma around seeking help that often prevents people from getting the care they need. At Mindstrong, we’re passionate about addressing this stigma head on and believe that having open and honest conversations about mental health care is an important first step toward this goal.

That’s why our CEO, Michelle Wagner, joined James Petrossi for the latest episode of his podcast Know Your True Self. Inspired by their shared compassion for humanity and penchant for sparking insightful discussions, Michelle and James discuss the evolution of mental health care, the courage it takes to reach out for help, and why it’s important to find support from resources like Mindstrong before it’s too late.


Full Episode Transcript

James Petrossi (Host)

Welcome to Know Your True Self, a show dedicated to raising the consciousness of humanity. Today we have a very special guest, Michelle Wagner, the CEO of Mindstrong. Michelle combines her passion for humanity with a deep understanding of technology and its impact.

She’s dedicated to moving organizations forward with a laser focus on integrity, loyalty, and empathy. As a seasoned operator, Michelle is focused on the integration of novel technologies with mental health care delivery. Let’s get started. Hey, Michelle. Welcome to know your true self. So thrilled to have you on the show with us today.

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

James Petrossi (Host)

So, mental health, you really can’t go anywhere without hearing someone talking about it. It’s all over social media, it’s all over the news, and there’s something so rewarding about seeing it everywhere. I know. All of these super courageous athletes that are on the world’s biggest stages are helping bring it to the forefront. Where did your journey start? How did you first become interested in the mental health industry?

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

When I was 16, in high school, I did some college classes at the same time because that was an overachiever, and I got really interested in kind of a basic psych class. And the concept of helping people to understand who they are and how to be their best and actually put ownership in their hands was a really interesting concept to me. And so just thinking about people and how they think and mental health in general and by mental health, I mean that definition of overall mental well being and being conscious of that, it was really interesting to me and woke up one day and decided, I’m going to be a therapist. That’s what I was going to study in school.

I didn’t have the privilege of therapy in my ecosystem as a kid, but that’s what I wanted to do. So I went off to college and I learned pretty quickly that I struggled with emotional boundaries. I got a little too connected. I was a little too empathetic with the people that I was working closely with and kind of shifted my focus. But I stayed close to this concept of people and helping people empower themselves to figure out whatever was best for them.

So fast forward now, 30 years since that decision, and leading Mindstrong is a really cool way for me to connect my career in technology and also my passion for people and helping people live their best lives.

James Petrossi (Host)

You started with a passion for mental health that led you into technology, then you returned back into mental health, and now it’s become full circle because technology is helping solve some of the mental health crisis and using technology for good. But just looking at the landscape of mental health, when you first got interested in mental health, do you remember what it was like where people actively talking about their feelings? Did it feel like people were suppressing them?

I feel like sometimes the check engine light of mental health has always been on, but people just put like a sticker over it so they don’t have to acknowledge it, when in fact, we get checkups for everything else in life. We get physicals once a year. How is that landscape and changing?

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

Yeah, I think you’re calling out something that’s really important, and that is stigma associated with mental illness. And the stigma associated with mental illness has stretched across mental health, meaning that people just associate them as the same things. And it’s not like there’s a different kind of stigma around heart health or physical health of any kind where it’s okay to go get an annual physical and have your doctor do a check-up for you and check your blood pressure and all of those things.

But the concept of having an annual check up on your mental health is pretty scary for folks. And when I was in school all those years ago, we didn’t talk about anxiety and depression. We didn’t talk about the fear of tests coming up. But if you walk into any college or high school today, it is in normal conversation. So I think one of the biggest shifts has been that shift in stigma.

It’s interesting, it seems to kind of stick by generation. If you talk to our parents, if you talk to your grandparents, like go back through generations, they are slower to let go of the stigma because they just have more experience and more life experience. But sitting with that stigma, whereas I have an 18 year old niece who will openly talk to me about anxieties that she has, she wants to process that. And I just think that that’s such a cool evolution of how we think about mental health in general. And I think that will help bring down the stigma associated with mental illness and stop kind of vilifying mental illness and those that are suffering from it.

James Petrossi (Host)

Mental health challenges are a part of life, and it’s nice to see the emotional intelligence or the emotional quotient of society changing. And I think what’s most challenging about mental health, it’s easy to see what’s wrong in someone else. We can always point out the flaws of other people. Man, they need help. They have this problem. Oh, they’re so addicted to that. The challenge a lot of people have is, how do I find the strength, how do I find the courage to look inward and identify that I do need help and to reach out to get help? Because that’s now the next barrier, right?

It’s one thing to say my mental health matters and put it on your instagram. It’s another thing to actively seek help to relieve the pressure from whatever trauma experience pain that you’re going through emotionally so you can progress in life, because otherwise we just all shout about it and don’t take action. So how do people take action? How do they find the courage? What do they need to do to take the steps to actually get help?

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

I joke about having really lumpy rugs because we just kind of shove everything under the rug, and now we’re all sitting on lumpy rugs everywhere. I think that that’s human nature. But practice actually is the first step. Walking into, why am I so down today? Why was it so hard to get out of bed today? Asking yourself a few questions. I’m not saying that self help is the solution to everything, but starting with what’s at the root here? And how can I reframe my thinking? Or who can help me reframe my thinking?

Because that’s what a lot of therapy is about. It’s about changing your behavior, changing your thought patterns. It’s not voodoo. It’s not some magic wand. You don’t get to go see a therapist and all of a sudden you come out, happiest sunshine. It is truly reframing your thoughts and behavior in a way that is more healthy for you. And having a guide to do that is powerful for you, and you get to own it. And I think that for most people, they don’t know what therapy is, and so it’s scary. It’s an unknown. So start with educate yourself. Look inward. Find out, am I showing up for myself as well as I can, and who I want to be? Who could help me do some reading about what therapy really is and remove that mystery, and then start to seek out the help that could really help you move forward.

And trust me, there are so few therapists out there, they don’t want people in care that they can’t help. So if they think that you don’t need week to week therapy, they’re not going to keep you in session just because they’re going to get paid a few dollars from your insurance. Nobody wants that. They want people to get better. People aim their skills at those most in need and who they can really help. You probably find a great therapist who helps you find the right tools for yourself based on your personal needs. But you can’t do that by searching on Google. You have to actually go talk to a professional.

James Petrossi (Host)

Let’s say you’ve had a lot of lumps under your rug, but over time, you sort of mash them down and become used to being unbalanced a little bit. But one life event could make all of those just come up and flip you on your head. What’s the importance of getting an advocate by your side before something happens, before there’s a big traumatic experience that can have other things surface and throw you into disarray? There are traumatic events in life that can really throw folks for a loop and can really trigger them in a way that causes them to need deep, intensive help in that moment in an ongoing way.

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

Pushing those things to the side, pushing them under your rug, is a temporary solution. Compartmentalizing as a temporary solution. Walking into them with someone by your side is a great way to understand yourself better. Build resiliency for the future because life’s wild. The world we live in today, everything seems combative. It seems like it’s hard to have a conversation with your neighbor without things getting sideways.

So understanding yourself more deeply with the help of a therapist is a great way to continue your forward life, to keep your mental health up and in a good position, so that whenever those life things come at you or that lump under the rug resurfaces, you can recognize it and have the tools to manage it. Or know when you need to bring up that therapist and say, hey, I found another lump in my rug. Can you help me process this? At Mindstrong, we try to make it really easy for people to get help. We are first and foremost using technology to break down access barriers. So getting to a therapist physically can be hard for folks.

If you’re working during the week, therapists have limited hours, so having virtual therapy, doing a video chat, or eventually a phone call once you build enough trust and rapport with your therapist can be a really helpful way to get the help that you need. So breaking down that barrier with technology by turning on virtual care and then for us, we’ve built an app that care access in your pocket.

So when you need a session, you can go on and schedule a session with someone. You’re not going to get a different person every time. We want you to build a relationship with your therapist, and that’s really important. It’s not a turning wheel of who do you get this week? But that means that through our app you have access to a full care team. And that care team is all of the types of people that may be able to help you.

Sometimes it’s a coach, sometimes it’s not a therapy session. It’s someone that says, hey, I can help you get the resources you need in your community to get back on your feet if you lost your job. Sometimes it’s a therapist who is helping you to reframe those thoughts and really setting up measurable care plans so that you can see your own progress. But these are just a few of the ways that I think people can take back ownership and take control and start making changes for themselves.

James Petrossi (Host)

Yeah, it’s so important we talk about self-awareness here. And I know we’ve done an episode on looking inward, and I feel like looking inward can be somewhat existential of a concept to some individuals, but it’s really just being observant of what you’re going through, how you’re feeling, identifying where those feelings are coming from. And if those feelings continue to surface and are causing you pain and mental discomfort, it’s probably time to talk to someone.

And that’s the beauty I think of Mindstrong. And what I love about what you’re doing is because you can get to someone quicker. You can get to someone from a great distance like you talked about. And I know some of our listeners might be thinking, oh, therapy, that’s me laying on a couch venting to someone for an hour. And this is a complete different frame of mind, frame of reference, something that’s really cutting edge. So what has been the experience of patients when they’re at home talking to someone on the app virtually? How are they responding to therapy in this type of environment versus the old type of environment?

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

It’s really interesting, and there have been a lot of studies that have been done around virtual care and the efficacy of virtual care, it is on par and in some cases better than in person therapy. And we attribute some of that to breaking down the barriers of distance, but also breaking down the barriers of having to physically sit across the room from someone and worry that they’re judging what you’re sharing when you’re on a video chat with them. There’s just like something that’s a little lighter about the presence here on the phone. You’re looking around your room, maybe you’re going for a walk, and you’re just sharing where you are.

And that person is your guide. They’re not telling you what’s right or what’s wrong. They just become your guide in helping you to reframe where you want to go and helping you to really understand what you’re experiencing and raising your own self awareness and helping you make the decisions that help you move forward.

And what’s fascinating to us is we have a lot of members, and we talked about stigma by generation earlier. They are over the age of 55. So just think about who that is in your life right now. Right, that’s probably not someone that you immediately associated with going to therapy, yet they’re highly engaged in their care, both in the session with their therapist or psychiatrist, and also in between, they complete a daily mood survey. They take steps to actually work through their action plans. And that’s really cool for us that we can find and treat those individuals who may not have even considered therapy.

And maybe they live in a rural part of the country, and more than half of our patients are in rural parts of the country. So they don’t even have a therapist nearby, much less someone that they might not even have a car that they can get to that therapy appointment. So sitting in the comfort of your home instead of on some therapist couch who might be tear stained from the last person that was there, there’s just a different level of comfort when you’re in your own space, when you’re on your own terms. And I think that virtual care has provided that in ways that many just couldn’t have imagined.

James Petrossi (Host)

Yeah, I love that because it was making me remember times when I’ve gone to see therapists in my life. And sometimes it’s been, like you mentioned, just for a couple of sessions, sometimes it’s been for multiple. Whatever was arising, I needed to deal with. But every time I had to step into their environment, that was actually the greatest barrier, was walking through their walls into their space. Automatically feel a little bit of discomfort and you’re looking around the room and all of their artifacts, everything in their world. When you have the comfort of your home or the comfort of nature, it’s so great to think that you could be sitting outside in a beautiful location and talking to a therapist. You can create a sacred space for yourself to be able to talk to someone.

That’s remarkable. To take a walk, to move. Some people that are highly kinesthetic can just have the phone in their pockets. Some people that are highly visual can look at someone and see that face and the emotions and sharing. It’s such a beautiful exchange to see the progression from what’s in a lot of people’s minds is like the Sigmund Freud type therapy. But that’s just what we’re used to, seeing representations that happen in film, but that’s not what therapy truly is.

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be like that. I would also argue that for folks that have been to that traditional therapy setting, whether it’s a therapist or a psychiatrist or anyone in the mental health profession that’s helping them, you mentioned walking through their door, walking into their space. Well, now you’re transformed into that room. And for 30 minutes, 45, 50 minutes, you’re pouring out your heart. You’re working on something. And when you leave, you leave it all in that room. And if you’re lucky enough to come back a couple of weeks later, then you walk back into that room. You walk back into that static of discomfort, you process it, then you leave it there again and you go away. But when you’re doing this in a virtual setting, we talk about the waiting room, which is that time up until your session or in between sessions.

The most progress happens in a virtual setting because you are taking control in between sessions. You’re still doing the work. Your therapist is your guide in between and during a session. And maybe they set a care plan with you that says your goal is to I’m just going to make something up. Think about a college student who maybe has finals coming up and they’re getting really nervous, and so it’s stopping them from studying. And so then they failed their test last time. They don’t want to repeat that. So you might have some really actionable things like, I’m going to use headphones to study so my roommate doesn’t distract me. I’m going to listen to a certain kind of music. And you can commit to those things when you’re in an in person session, but if you leave them in the room with all your challenges, you’re not going to remember to do them.

But if you’re calling in from your dorm room and you have that conversation and you take notes and you see it in the app, like, these are the things I’m committing to do, for me, you’re more likely to do them and then you’re going to see better results. And that’s why our platform works really well because we keep people accountable to the things that they’ve committed to do for themselves. Not for us, but for them. And the app helps them stay on track with those things and helps them come back to session and talk about their wins. Because ultimately we don’t want you in session every week or every other week. We want you out there thriving on your own and having the tools you need and the right mindset and the right behavior changes to allow you to do that.

In the healthcare industry, we talk about clinical outcomes and we talk about measuring levels of anxiety, levels of depression, and we see our patients reduce their levels of anxiety and depression at really sustainable clips over time. And that’s our goal. We want to get you to a place of little to no symptom and then you manage it beyond that. And we’re here for you if you need to bounce back in. Like you mentioned, sometimes you go for a couple of sessions and maybe life just got hairy and you needed to talk to someone to reset. Cool. We’re here for you.

It’s really easy to reengage with the same people that have all of your history and can pick up where you left off. And it’s really hard to do that in an in person setting. Right? So how do we get from states of anxiety, depression, fear, worry, to being able to thrive? Because I feel like some people are very good at the self diagnosis, hey, I’m depressed, it’s going to take time, I’ll get through it. But they seem to be becoming ever more covered by clouds and darkness and further away from the light. And they know they need help, but they think that if enough time passes, they’ll get through it. I’ll be okay. It’s just going to take time. It’s just going to take more time. But if I just stick with what I’m doing and focus my attention to other things in life, I’ll make it through this. It’s a really lumpy rug. Yeah, very lumpy rug. Right.

James Petrossi (Host)

So where do we go from that self diagnosis to getting help? And specifically, if someone needs mental health care right now, what are the steps they need to take to interact with Mindstrong and to get an advocate by their side?

Michelle Wagner (Guest)

First, I’ll point you to somewhere besides mine strong. And that is the new nine eight eight crisis line that the US put into effect on July 16. This is replacing the suicide hotline. So if ever someone or someone themselves or someone you love is in danger in an immediate fashion, nine eight is the fastest and best way to get to someone who can help you out of that moment.

But for Mindstrong, it’s actually pretty easy. Anybody could go to mindstrong.com. You can see what it’s like to work with us and download our app, and get matched with a therapist and depending on what state you’re in, because we’re not in every state in the United States, but we most likely take your insurance. So we try to make it really easy and keep the cost really low. We don’t have to take your insurance. Believe it or not, there’s still stigma associated with filing a claim for behavioral health, and some people like to pay cash. But we want to get you into a place where there’s no barrier.

So if we can get you into the app, if we can confirm your insurance, then we can get you in to see a therapist in as few as a couple of days. Wonderful. Any other parting thoughts, words of wisdom, feelings you have about the mental health space, what you’re doing at Mindstrong? First of all, hats off for anyone that reaches out and looks for the help. And a lot of our newer members coming in, we see them get through kind of an engagement flow with us. They go so far as to give us their insurance information, strong signal that you’re ready, and then they never schedule an appointment. So if you have the courage to get that far, take a deep breath and just walk into it. There is goodness on the other side of it, and that’s off to those with the courage and those considering it.

There’s a lot of really great options out there to help you find the right match for you. And if we can help in any way, we’re here too. It’s our mission. We are a company full of people that care deeply about helping others live their own fulfilled lives. Give us a shout, give us a call, visit our website, and we will happily help.

James Petrossi (Host)

Well, those parting words started to make me tear up, so thank you so much. Really appreciate having you on the show here today. You’ve been an amazing guest and an amazing leader and are part of an amazing organization. Thank you so much. Thank you, James. I appreciate you having me. Thank you so much for joining in. Always remember, you have a choice. Take an active role in your own evolution. Know your true self.

About the author
Mindstrong Team
Mindstrong Team

Mindstrong provides therapy and psychiatry services through your smartphone and is a covered benefit of many health insurance plans.