The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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Zencare connects students with Boston therapists


By Bradley Fargo, news correspondent

At the beginning of this school year, sophomore business administration major Aarthi Madadi was depressed. By the end of September, she made a crisis counseling appointment with Northeastern’s University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS).

In November, more than a month later, her appointment came around and she met with a campus therapist. They talked to her—asking questions and trying to figure out what was going on—but for long-term care they provided a list of recommended professionals off campus. It wasn’t so helpful, Madadi said, as many of the names on the list were not taking new clients.

Madadi eventually found the help she was looking for through a friend’s suggestion: Zencare, a New-England based free website that facilitates finding a personalized therapist or clinician. She was connected with a therapist who she still sees.

“I liked it—I thought it was easy to use and convenient,” Madadi said. “And it works, that’s the biggest thing. There are enough therapists on there that you can get an appointment.”

Zencare provides users with introductory videos for participating therapists, keeps listed therapist availabilities up-to-date and uses a phone consultation system where clients can schedule times for clinicians to call them.

Founder Yuri Tomikawa said Zencare is designed to help solve issues of quality, determining a personality fit between patients and therapists and logistical hassles that students face while searching for a therapist. Tomikawa called it the simplest way for people to find their ideal therapist.

“I saw this as a problem, and I knew what the internet can do to really improve this, so I just started out of curiousity,” Tomikawa said. “Even having a website, recommended and quality vetted clinicians to photos and videos of therapists, and the ability to book an initial call and availability information. Those are things that are not so available, but can really make a big difference in someone who’s reaching out.”

Zencare also includes additional vetting processes for therapists to ensure that the therapists they refer patients to are quality and meet professional standards. Stephanie Hartselle, the medical advisor for Zencare and a working psychiatrist and therapist, said the company looks for applicants who use evidence-based treatments, provide strong professional recommendations and pass background checks of licensure. Maggie Jordan, Zencare’s therapy success manager, said they only accept about 50 percent of those who apply.

“As the need for a vetted therapist source became clear, Yuri [Tomikawa] quickly recognized that recommendations from students, while important, was not enough to ensure quality care,” Hartselle said in an e-mail to The News. There are quite a few people we can’t accept for a variety of reasons but Zencare is open to growth and development. Many reapply after a period of time.”

Zencare is similar to other online directories of mental health professionals, such as Psychology Today, which is available to people nation-wide, but Zencare is primarily confined to Providence and Boston. Tomikawa said several universities in Rhode Island are using her website as an unofficial, but free referral service.

“If students can’t be seen on campus, they are often referred off campus and given a list of names and numbers,” Tomikawa said. “We want to be there as a free tool for them to check availability, check insurance and schedule an initial call.”

Tomikawa launched Zencare in 2015 in Rhode Island, at first serving only the area around Providence, Rhode Island. The company expanded to Boston in September 2016. She is currently focusing on expanding the company’s therapist network in Boston and getting the word out.

“We want to grow because there is a lot of need,” Tomikawa said. “We want to increase the number of insurances, the number of specialties people can find. To do that we need a very passionate capable team, to find quality therapists and to let people know this is a free tool.”

Northeastern resources like UHCS may be stretched thin, but not every student’s experience is like Madadi’s. Makaila Cerrone, a sophomore psychology and political science double major who is currently on co-op at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her experience with UHCS wasn’t ideal, but she did eventually get the help she was looking for.

When she made an appointment, she was told she would have to wait six to eight weeks. UHCS holds walk-in hours on Saturdays and for emergencies, but often these impromptu appointments are as brief as 15 minutes.

Cerrone eventually walked in, and she was provided a referral list of therapists. The first name on the list happened to work out. As a result, she accessed a professional that she can see once a week on a long-term basis. She said a UHCS employee even followed up with her after two or three weeks.

“It’s weird there because I think they want to help,” Cerrone said. “[But] if it’s crisis counseling, how are they booked eight weeks in advance? I know everyone gives UHCS a lot of crap, but the end result was good and everything worked out well.”

Madadi said she does not feel the same way and that it is no easy task to find a compatible therapist who takes a specific insurance plan and is accepting new clients.

“I told a friend who was going through it, ‘Don’t bother with UHCS; waiting for UHCS doesn’t help,’” Madadi said. “Just either go on Zencare or Psychology Today and look for a therapist yourself with your insurance.”

Part-time Zencare intern Mallory Gothelf, a senior majoring in psychology, is currently working to build a base of clients for the free service. She experienced the difficulties of searching for a therapist during her freshman and sophomore years.

Gothelf was diagnosed with clinical and generalized depression at the age of 15 and spent some time at outpatient facilities near her home in Maryland. When she moved to Boston, she struggled to find a replacement support network. Her freshman year, she looked for a therapist on her own, but ended up giving up.

In the spring of her sophomore year, Gothelf checked into a medical outpatient facility and ended up taking a leave of absence from school. She wasn’t allowed to enroll again for the fall semester until she had found a psychiatrist and therapist from the community.

“It took me most of the summer and when I met with my psychiatrist in the fall we just were not a good fit. There was no way using one phone call I would have known then,” Gothelf said. “I’m jealous of people that have access to Zencare—it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration.”

For those going through a crisis at Northeastern, Cerrone recommended We Care, a Northeastern support service run to help students through crises. UHCS also offers immediate walk-in appointments in emergencies. However, for longer term mental health needs, Gothelf said there is no replacement for seeing a therapist or clinician.

“If you can find someone in the community who can meet with you in person, they’re someone you can call in the time of an emergency,” Gothelf said. “Especially in the city, there are a lot of resources, [the problem is] just having the connection between the resources and the students—and that’s essentially what Zencare is.”

Photo courtesy Zencare

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