Startup Connects local LGBTQ Clients and Mental Health Care
By: Jenna Spinelle/TRT Reporter—
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Making the decision to see a therapist is often a great first step toward working through an emotional issue. The process of finding one, however, can often be filled with anxiety, frustration, and confusion.
Hours of phone and e-mail tag, a mix of websites and information, and a lack of user reviews can make an already difficult decision seem overwhelming. For LGBTQ people, the process can be even more frustrating when attempting to find a culturally competent mental health professional. A new company aims to change that, one connection at a time.
Zencare is a Providence-based startup that matches therapists and clients. It was founded last year by Yuri Tomikawa, who recognized the need while looking for a therapist for herself.
“I did a Google search and it was a really frustrating experience,” Tomikawa said. “It was very hard to tell quality and personality, and I called 20 people only to hear back from 10. I wanted to create a better system.”
Zencare currently has connected more than 700 individuals with about 70 therapists. Its main client base comes from young professionals and college students in the Providence area. The service recently expanded to Boston, where Tomikawa and the Zencare team are building a network of therapists.
“There is such a big need here with students and young professionals in Boston and there’s a huge therapist community here,” Tomikawa said. “We can really add value here.”
Tomikawa said young consumers are used to finding anything they want online, from ordering food to online dating, so therapy should not be any different.
Another benefit of the service, Tomikawa said, is the fact that all therapists are vetted before their information is added to the site. Zencare’s vetting process starts with referrals from hospitals or therapists in the area. Staff meet with each potential therapist and gather the information necessary to build an online profile, including a bio, photo and introductory video. Once the initial consultation takes place between a provider and a new client, Zencare surveys the client about the experience, allowing the vetting process to continue once a therapist is registered on the site.
Information such as education and areas of specialty are presented consistently for each provider, and prospective clients can request a 10-minute phone call through the site, if they find someone who looks like they will be a good fit. Zencare staff are also available to help make connections if needed.
“On average we see that people come on our site and look within 2-3 minutes. You can see who you get a good vibe from and who has expertise in whatever you need,” Tomikawa said. “More traditional methods [like] e-mail [and] phone tag takes up days.”
Of the 70 therapists listed on Zencare, 20 specialize in LGBTQ-related issues, including transgender identities and sexual orientation.
Jayna Klatzker is a social worker who has been treating LGBTQ clients since the 1980s. She had a long-established practice before joining Zencare, but was inspired to get involved after meeting Tomikawa through a mutual friend at a party.
“It’s nice to have a built-in network people can turn to where others have had … good experiences,” Klatzker said.
From her first LGBTQ clients in the 1980s to the college students she sees now, Klatzker said she feels privileged to serve the community in her own way.
“Compassion is the first and foremost thing that’s within every fiber of me with the community,” Klatzker said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to see students when they are away [by] themselves and exploring life differently without the tethering of home and parents.”
Providence resident and 2016 Mr. Gay Rhode Island winner Joe DiMauro first encountered Zencare earlier this year after contacting Tomikawa to be on the board for his non-profit organization, Project Fearless. DiMauro has written about his struggle with eating disorders and said he’s seen therapists off and on for years. He was impressed by how seamless Zencare made the process of finding one.
“I’ve had a few therapists and they were always great and professional, but with Zencare you can see more information about a therapist before you try them out,” DiMauro said. “It’s a lot more personal and connective.”
DiMauro encouraged skeptics to try it out before making a final judgement.
“It’s very personalized and it’s not taking any of your private information if you’re just checking [it] out,” DiMauro said. “It doesn’t hurt to try at all. You just fill out what you are seeking help for and it will narrow down to anyone in your area.”
Maggie Jordan, Zencare’s therapist success manager, identifies as lesbian and used Zencare to find a therapist to help her work through her coming out process.
She sees the service as opening up a new outlet for the LGBTQ community to connect with therapy services for the first time. Through its vetting process, Zencare works to ensure that its therapists understand stigma and take actions like using proper pronouns when working with clients.
“We are really the first point of contact for people who have never had therapy before,” Jordan said. “When we say these clinicians specialize [in] working with LGBTQ [people] there’s real meaning in that. We want to make that first experience as positive as possible.”
Tomikawa said she hopes to continue expanding services for the LGBTQ population, especially as Zencare grows to other cities. She has received inquiries asking when it will be available in New York and San Francisco. An app is also in the works to compliment Zencare’s website.
“We want to expand to serve more of the LGBTQ population,” Tomikawa said. “This is a community with a high need and where it’s difficult to find a good therapist.”
Visit www.zencare.co to find more information about the company and its services.