🧠 Men-tal Health

The latest on the business of mental health and wellness

Welcome to On The Mind, a collection of stories, news, and analyses on the startups, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

Took a break over the holidays, but I’m excited to be back. Looking forward to documenting how the mental health landscape continues to evolve this year.

Here’s what’s included in issue No. 4:

  • A Canadian startup approaching mental health for men

  • Taking a closer look at the benefits of and evidence for peer support

  • Looking back at your 2020, and planning for your 2021

🎙️ Interview with Matt Zerker, Founder and CEO of tethr

Conversations with founders, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

One of the fundamental problems in the mental health space is the imbalance of mental health professionals and patients. The demand for mental health services far exceeds the supply of those trained to provide sufficient care. Another fundamental problem is the excessive cost inherent in delivering mental health care. Patients require personalized care via relationships that take time to build up and get right.

While there are many approaches to solving these problems, peer support and group-based therapy startups have gained a lot of traction lately. These models reduce the need for as many mental health professionals by enabling them to serve more patients at the same time and by shifting some of the care responsibilities to patients’ peers.

I’ve seen a variety of peer- and group-based models popping up, each with unique approaches and many targeting subsets of the broader population. Shimmer matches you with a group of peers going through similar circumstances. Violet provides queer-competent mental healthcare for the LGBTQ+ population, incorporating community connections. Real provides specific pathways to help tackle mental health goals, often embedding groups as part of the process. And a number of startups are tackling men’s mental health, including Sail, EVRYMAN, and today’s feature, tethr.

I spoke with Matt Zerker, Co-Founder and CEO of Canada-based tethr, to learn more about their approach.

What motivated you to start tethr?

A few years ago I went on a men’s retreat and had a really profound experience that made me reevaluate what I was doing with my life. I came home on a Monday, quit my job on a Wednesday without a plan, and spent a few months trying to find my footing. I wanted to recreate the experience I had at the retreat for others, but found there were no effective digital solutions that gave men access to that type of experience.

I knew this was something I had to do to help other men heal. I decided to sell my home to finance the business and officially started tethr with my co-founder Addison Brasil in November 2019.

What is the tethr product?

tethr is a peer enabled mental health and well-being platform for anyone that identifies as a man. While the idea was inspired by my time at a men’s retreat, we’re not trying to be retreat guys. The margins don’t work – you need a lot of space, people, and logistics figured out.

Instead, we’re reimagining what a support community can look like for men within a digital framework. We’ve started off pretty bare bones - an iPhone and Android app with a forum of threads, the ability to chat 1-on-1 or in groups, and some targeted content.

We recently launched a beta for tethr pods, which puts men together on a team so that they’re able to go through the self-improvement journey with support. We know that accountability is a great way to form better bonds and connections within our community, and pods will help us mitigate the drop-off that’s so common with more traditional self-help programs.

We’re really focusing heavily on customer discovery right now and making product iterations aligned with our findings.

Why the specific focus on men?

We’re looking to disrupt the way men receive mental healthcare and how masculinity is defined in society. If you look at masculinity as a construct, we’re very much programmed from a young age to believe there’s an archetype of masculinity we’re meant to live up to. A man is unemotional, doesn’t rely on others for support, and solves his own problems. This idea is reinforced through pop culture, movies, all over really – you hear “boys don’t cry” and “man up.” There’s a general feeling that guys need to live up to these standards to get their man card stamped, and it’s bullshit.

Besides our own familiarity with the male experience, we’re focused on men because there’s a deep need. We don’t really think of it as a gender thing, just a problem we understand that needs to be solved. Most guys deeply crave a way to get in touch with their emotions and strengthen their relatioships, and are looking for permission to be able to do so.

From a healthcare standpoint, the view is grim. Nearly 80% of men struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, yet 40% of men who do struggle don’t seek help until they develop suicidal thoughts or inflict self-harm. 75% of all suicides are committed by men - we need to reach them earlier. Men drastically underutilize mental health services - therapy is talking about your feelings, and many men don’t know how to. In fact, for teletherapy services like BetterHelp and Talkspace, the vast majority of the users are women.

Beyond the focus on men, can you talk more about your user base?

tethr is for all male-identifying people, but we’re certainly targeting those most in need of help. We’re for the guys who know deep down they wish they could talk with their friends or family about more of the things happening in their lives, but don’t think they can or don’t know how.

We have a wide range of conversations happening on the app - everything from relationships and divorces, to general feelings of sadness or isolation, to not measuring up to what it means to be a man. We’ve got 3,000+ men on our platform, and our users span a variety of backgrounds and orientations. We have users as young as 18 and others in their 70s, but the majority fall in the 35-50 range. It makes a lot of sense - there’s a trough of happiness that tends to occur then. It’s the age bracket with some of the highest incidences of suicide for men.

You’ve got a very masculine approach to your branding. One of the taglines you use is “we fuck with feelings.” Why have you marketed tethr this way?

It’s very much a similar approach to the “Fuck Cancer” campaign. It’s emotional and resonant. It’s meant to be empowering, but also meant to be playful.

tethr is meant to be your friend, the guy you can hang out with and grab a beer with. We think it’s important to distinguish yourself in this landscape, and for us it’s a strong brand statement. We’re here to say that struggling doesn’t make you less of a man, that it’s just what makes you human. One of the manliest things you can do is fuck with your feelings. Some of the strongest men I know personally are also some of the most deeply emotionally introspective.

We also want to be an approachable option for men who may be resistant to mental health care. By creating a brand with more familiar, masculine language, we hope we can draw in more men to proactively manage their mental health.

How does tethr compare to competing men’s focused mental health startups?

There are a lot of men’s focused mental health companies, but I don’t see the space as competitive right now. It’s more of a blue ocean. It’s the first inning of men’s mental health right now, and we’re all still figuring the space out and where we can be of service.

I’m friends with a lot of the players in the space - I’ve spoken with Lucas Krump, the CEO of EVRYMAN and Johnny Chen, the CEO of Sail. There’s Sacred Sons, Guy Talk, and the Modern Renaissance Man. At the end of the day, there’s not going to be just one winner. We’re a different flavor, and each of us attracts our own type of men with a unique approach. For example, Sail is taking more of a coaching program approach, and we’re focused more on the peer support aspect.

At the end of the day, we come at it from a strong service mindset - we’re building the best products to help men better themselves, and support anyone else working toward that same mission.

What’s been your fundraising journey? Are you currently raising?

We ran a successul Kickstarter campaign that closed in September of last year and exceeded our CA$25,000 goal. We’re not currently raising. We’re really focused heads-down on customer discovery, growing our user base, and refining our offerings at the moment.

We do have some exciting announcements on the horizon, but nothing we can announce at the moment - you’ll have to keep an eye out for those in the coming months.

Any other mental health companies you’re a fan of?

I’m into the digital therapy apps like Talkspace, 7 Cups, and BetterHelp. I’m a fan of the meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer, just for the breadth of content they offer. I like mental health platforms that are working to gamify the experience, making mental health more fun and a bit easier to engage with. Wisdo is a good example of a gamified peer support model, and Happify is another gamified platform for happiness. In the psychedelics space, I’ve been keeping an eye on Novamind.

🩺 Clinical Coverage

Discussion of clinical concepts, studies, or perspectives on mental health and wellbeing.

Peer support is not a new addition to the behavioral health space - it’s been around for decades, and has a robust set of evidence for its efficacy documented by Mental Health America. Peer support is practiced in all 50 states and is reimbursable by Medicaid in 35 states.

Peer support is typically complementary to rather than substitutive for other mental health services. Still, incorporating it has been proven to provide major benefits:

Both Mental Health America and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide a long list of resources to learn more about peer support and its benefits.

💰 Recent Investments and IPOs

Rundown of recent investment news in mental health and wellness companies.

📖 Interesting Reads

Sometimes mental health-related. Sometimes just things I find interesting.

  • Another great piece from What If Ventures surveying mental health investors on their 2021 outlook (Link)

  • Apple teams up with Biogen to launch a study on cognitive decline (Link)

  • Drive-thru salads are coming to a suburb near you (Link)

  • Great (and entertaining) list of 100 ways to live better (Link)

  • It won’t replace live music, but it’ll look good in your room (Link)

  • Fred Wilson reflects on 2020 (Link)

  • Another reason to go to New Zealand, if they’ll take you (Link)

  • How to deal with the self-chatter in your head (Link)

  • The NYT covers male support networks, featuring tethr (Link)

  • 2020 ended with 146 deals amounting to $1.6B of venture investments in the mental health space, according to Pitchbook (Link)

  • Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris discusses what’s in store for psychedelics in 2021 (Link)

  • A look at the (in)effectiveness of chat-based therapy apps (Link)

  • 12 women contributing to the mental health space this year (Link)

  • How billionaires see themselves (Link)

  • Nostalgia, and why we need it (Link)

🧠 Mindfulness Tip of the Week

Tips to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

Despite being an arbitrary date on the calendar, the new year presents an opportunity to practice mindfulness and reflect on the changes we want to make moving forward.

Looking to the future: This guide provides a simple framework for goal-setting, laying out the S.M.A.R.T. approach. This WSJ article digs deeper into building self-discipline and finding motivation. I’ve personally found it easier to start with 1-2 achievable habits and perform them consistently for at least 2 weeks before adding more.

Reflecting on the past: For another approach to mindfulness as it relates to the new year, it’s not too late to reflect on 2020 and extract insights for how you live in 2021. Focusing on reflection over goal-setting has grown in popularity (it’s a method Tim Ferris applies). This year, Patricia Mou, who writes a great newsletter called Wellness Wisdom, documented her approach to reflecting on 2020 and provided a template for others to do the same.

A friend of mine, Juvoni Beckford, has done a really incredible job auditing his life with year-end reviews as well. His posts provide extremely thorough and thoughtful examples I’ve drawn on to inspire my own review.

On Your Mind

I’d love your feedback - feel free to email me at tarockoff@berkeley.edu.

If you’re working on something in mental health and wellness, let’s talk. You can book some time with me here.

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Written by Daniel Tarockoff, an MBA student at UC Berkeley and former healthcare strategy consultant exploring the future of mental health. Born in Michigan. Based in Berkeley, CA.