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How Richa Singh of YourDOST is filling India's mental health gap

The co founder and CEO of YourDOST talks about the challenges and rewards of running an online mental health platform in these stressful times

YourDOST co founder Richa Singh believes that from latent need, mental health has become a real need now
YourDOST co founder Richa Singh believes that from latent need, mental health has become a real need now (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

It’s a Monday, and a video interview is scheduled with Richa Singh, co-founder and CEO of YourDOST. Her teammate says Singh will be “joining from the office”. In one way, life is nearly back to the “old normal” for Singh, for she can divide work and personal life physically - something most officer-goers have been struggling with. In another, though, it’s very much a “new normal”, with most team members still working remotely.

One of the pioneers of the explosion of digital platforms in the mental health and emotional well-being space, Bengaluru-based YourDOST has witnessed exponential growth in the last few months. “Since the pandemic, I realised the world needs us more than ever before,” says Singh.

This is reflected in the meteoric increase in demand for their services by individuals, companies, even fellow entrepreneurs. There has been an 80% increase in the number of sessions by individuals and corporate employees, and a 100% increase among founders registering for their programme since March. Over 250 founders have used the programme so far. “We have definitely seen the curve maturing faster. From a latent need, which it was all these years, it has become a real need now,” says the 33-year-old entrepreneur.

YourDOST, incorporated in July 2015, provides chat, phone and video therapy and has a network of over 900 psychologists, psychotherapists, life and career coaches around the country. Singh, who specialised in user experience design, became interested in mental health as she saw stress take a toll on her, fellow students and colleagues. The interest took the shape of a blog and then, a business.

She believes everyone, not just those with severe mental illness, can benefit from therapy, for it can help take care of fears or triggers. “For instance, I used to feel very scared when I had to make presentations. My voice, which anyway is very thin, would start shivering, would not come out. I went to therapy to learn to manage this fear. I learnt certain techniques, understood triggers and finer details. I think therapy is for everyone as it can give you a better understanding of yourself, to understand your triggers and to learn techniques to cope with those triggers,” says Singh, whose first brush with therapy was in 2011, while working in Bengaluru.

At the time, there were hardly any online platforms focusing on mental health. Since she had just moved to the city, she searched for therapists on Google. “I was confused about some things which I wanted some guidance with.” Singh continues therapy even today, complementing it with yoga, meditation, conversations with friends and a gratitude journal. YourDOST’s chief fun officer, a five-year-old indie called Penny, is a great comfort. In recent months, Singh, who was a state level swimmer and table tennis player, has also taken up her old hobby of painting.

This thrust on extra-curricular activities held her in good stead years ago, when she was preparing to crack the IIT-JEE entrance exam. She even went to Kota, a city that specialises in coaching students for the test, but returned home to Bhopal in a few months. “I was doing well there. But I saw people studying 17-18 hours. There were many who had attempted JEE at least three times, and were still trying. I didn’t think all this was healthy. My parents understood my decision to not stay there,” she says.

Singh cleared JEE, specialising in user experience design at the Indian Instituteof Technology, Guwahati. The tragedy of one of her IIT hostel mates dying by suicide, unable to take the pressure of getting a good campus placement, remained with her. A family friend’s son, whom she considered to be a good student and who had also gone to Kota along with her, didn’t fare well. “The experience broke him. He felt he wasn’t good enough,” she says. It made her ponder ways of bridging the gap between people dealing with mental health issues, and the experts. But the path still wasn’t clear.

After IIT, she joined investment management firm D E Shaw & Co. to work on product planning and interactive design in Hyderabad. This was when she met YourDOST co founder Puneet Manuja, whom she would go on to marry.

Manuja had gone through his share of emotional stress while graduating as an engineer. They began researching the subject and started a blog in 2009, interviewing mental health practitioners and documenting people’s stories. In 2011, Singh joined Webfluenz, a social media analytics tool company. When the company was acquired by Mu Sigma in 2014, Singh moved to o9 Solutions. By then, the blog had gained traction, and Singh felt the time was ripe to turn it into a business venture. She quit her job.

Today, that bootstrapped venture is backed by investors such as redBus founder Phanindra Sama, TaxiForSure’s Aprameya Radhakrishna, and SAIF Partners, which led the pre series A round where they raised $1.2 million (around 9 crore). “However, after this round, we decided we wanted to achieve self-sufficiency,” says Singh. In early 2019, YourDOST became profitable.

On an average, YourDOST conducts around 600 sessions a day, and has supported over two million people through its platform since inception. Most of its clients are in the 18-35 age group; 70% of them are men. Although its reach is greater in urban cities, 40% of its clients are now from tier 2 cities, towns and villages. One reason could be that they offer therapy in over 20 languages.

YourDOST has a stringent screening process. Besides a written test, a panel of 12 in-house psychologists goes through mock therapy to rate therapists. Every therapist also goes through supervision, regardless of experience. This was a learning from the initial six months, when clients flagged complaints against therapists who had impressive degrees.

Today, the firm is working with the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), as well as the governments of Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, to provide counselling, including career counselling.

However, there’s a long way to go. For, though there is greater openness to mental health issues, the reluctance to seek expert help remains the big challenge. At an organisation level too, Singh believes a mindset change is needed to ensure every company looks at emotional well-being as a long-term investment.

While YourDOST saw the number of its corporate partnerships shoot up over the last few months, some companies are rethinking these as offices open up. Some even believe that offering such services may give the impression they are not a “good organisation” to work with. YourDOST has, in fact, found smaller firms with a young workforce more receptive.

Among individuals, the past few months have seen a slight change in attitudes, with more people seeking support for relationship dynamics at home and work. Childcare along with work from home is a big concern. “I still remember a chief HR officer of a large listed company who said that YourDOST should do something on parenting for men, as we were not used to spending so much time with our small children,” she says. Given the pandemic’s impact on business, many founders too have sought professional help to deal with higher levels of stress.

“I know from my own journey. During the initial phase, it’s not just the uncertainty that you deal with but also people, including your family, doubt you. It brings down your morale. Your team is small and it affects you even more,” says Singh, who now has a 40-member team.

Singh recalls that her family wasn’t happy when she announced she was quitting her well-paying job to start YourDOST. They were even more distressed by the field she had chosen. “At that time my parents said, “Arre, tum kaise kaise logon ke saath kam karogi? Koi tumse shaadi bhi nahi karna chahega (what kind of people will you deal with? nobody will even be interested in marrying you). It all came down to marriage. But they came around in a matter of six months once they saw how serious I was about this,” says Singh, adding that her mother and brother have since used the services of YourDOST.

It has not been an easy journey. Investors weren’t too keen on the category initially. There was a point, around 2018, when they had just enough money for a quarter. They had to downsize. “It’s never easy to part ways with people whom you have considered family. But we had to survive,” says Singh, who started the company from the verandah of her house.

Over the years, she and Manuja have become heavy users of YourDOST. It helps that they can do so anonymously. “You don’t want your therapist to know that you are from the same organisation,” chuckles Singh.

Happy to see the greater openness to mental health issues, Singh warns, however, of the dangers of trivialising potentially severe mental disorders. “When people say they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or they are depressed, I ask them whether they have been diagnosed, and they say no. These are mental health conditions that require a lot of effort in management. If you are a good organiser, then say I am extremely good at it—but don’t use these terms loosely. It’s the same with depression; sadness is not depression. So, I do feel worried about this, and the only way to address it is by having psychology education,” she says.

India has a severe shortage of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. The Union health and family welfare ministry estimates India needs at least 13,000 psychiatrists and 20,000 clinical psychologists. Singh, however, believes that for many, though, consulting psychologists with a master’s degree in psychology and PG diploma with field experience could be enough. The challenge, says Singh, is making them “industry-ready”.

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