Therapy failed me, but it doesn’t have to fail you. I was self-diagnosed with “Strong Black Woman Syndrome.” I believe many individuals growing up in BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of color) households were raised to believe that you can do it all . . . and I was no exception.
I was struggling. No drowning trying to take care of my mental health.
I was all things to all people, but paying little attention to what I needed. Missed sleep. Grinding all day long. Trying to reach ridiculous self-imposed deadlines and expectations. All on top of raising 2 children, and one with autism.
One day, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I was burned out, and empty on the inside. I had no one to talk to because “what goes on in this house, stays in this house” I knew I needed help, and finally worked up the nerve to go to therapy.
My appointment was a disaster. I told her about me, my struggles and how I was feeling inside. She sat there in her expensive clothing, took notes and smiled at me the entire time. When I finished being open, vulnerable and raw, she invalidated me and ignored my pain.
“You seem like a STRONG BLACK WOMAN, and found ways to cope. I’m proud of you. Please come back if you feel like life is too much to handle.”
I left more broken and defeated. Clearly, therapy wasn’t for people like me.
I discovered I wasn’t the only one who experienced erasure, microaggressions and feeling unseen or unheard during therapy. That’s why I was excited to speak to Eric Coly the Founder & CEO of Ayana.
Describe Ayana? What is its reason to exist? Why now?
Ayana is an app that offers access to mental therapy to marginalized communities. It enables virtual communication with licensed therapists through a smart matchmaking algorithm, based on their cultural experiences and identity.
Our reason for creating Ayana was to address the severe lack of access to mental health services by people of color & LGBTQ+ communities in an effort to combat the high-cost, stigma and poor cultural competency by the health care industry that serve as impediments.
Why now? Because we are in unique times defined by the worst state of mental health affliction worldwide, coinciding with the most advanced technological environment we’ve seen. These types of epochal intersections often provide fertile grounds for innovation – and we want to turn this sense of urgency into action.
Our product not only addresses issues of mental health to neglected communities but does so virtually. This helps mitigate mobility challenges, busy schedules, and transportation issues.
What are your feelings about the various aspects of resilience and how it affects communities of color?
It is historically known that communities of color have been disproportionately affected in many regards – in particular, black communities dating back to slavery. Surviving those times meant exuding a tremendous amount of resilience, passed down generationally.
Though resilience is one of the most important character traits one could possess, it does have a pernicious side that makes one often unable to admit and acknowledge their feelings or seek out help.
Add to that the cultural, religious and high cost of access to mental health services, and you end up with a community unwilling to properly face an increasingly worse situation.
We’ve seen the birth of many mental health apps, what makes AYANA different from the others. (i.e. BetterHelp and TalkSpace) and what more can AYANA further provide?
Ayana is not just focused on neglected communities, but also on smaller marginalized factions within those same communities. We are building Ayana to appeal for instance to a Gay Muslim African American woman whose intersectionality would have caused her to be socially and culturally “invisible.” And that is exactly whom we fight for – be it Asian, Latinx, Arab, Trans, Christian, etc. We want to ease access to mental health services for individuals whose voices were never properly honored.
Do you have any tips on picking a great therapist?
Picking a great therapist can often present a challenge even for individuals that have already had therapy, and definitely so for neophytes.
First, identify what your needs are. Most people’s means of research range from getting referrals, looking through insurance portals for in-network counselors, or just doing online basic searches. These methods tend to be arduous and quite emotionally, taxing as people often have to interview up to a dozen therapists just to find a suitable one.
There are many therapists with unique capabilities and fields of expertise. I’d recommend spending time learning about their methods, specialties, and modalities. I would also inquire about their cultural competency and cultural humility if they are of another ethnic background. Fortunately, most offer a first free hour session to start – which gives an opportunity to make an informed decision before committing to one.
These challenges are precisely why we launched Ayana, which offers a carefully crafted questionnaire that helps develop an advanced user profile, that our smart algorithm is able to analyze in order to find you an instant and ideal therapist.
What are some of the challenges AYANA has encountered within the past year? How have you overcome them?
Our ideology is centered around providing services to groups of people that have been largely ignored not only by society but within the realm of the healthcare industry. Outside of cost, stigma and the lack of cultural competency by the healthcare industry, another equally important hurdle has been the lack of available counselors.
So within the last year, our challenges have been to create a business model capable of offering a suitable price point, creating methods of de-stigmatizing mental health through constant education, and developing a sophisticated and discerning nationwide search of counselors that fit the various needs of our audience – those being of multiple genders, ethnicities, orientations and religions, and the intersections between them all.
How do you view the future of Ayana?
I see a bright future for Ayana. We are entering an era marked by great diversity that is further accentuated by accelerated demographic growth. It is also connected with an evolving view and understanding of mental health by those marginalized communities. Ayana’s mission falls right into this niche. The conjunction of all these factors will offer opportunities for success, and our goal is to live up to high expectations.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to add?
We are soft-launching at the beginning of November and are looking for individuals and companies to help us test our product.
We are also looking to add compassionate licensed therapists to our platform and invite them to apply at https://www.ayanatherapy.com/therapists-application-form
You can find out more about Ayana and connect with them at:
You can also check out Contessa’s Huff Post article, “An Open Letter To My Therapist Who Called Me A ‘Strong Black Woman’”.