Rethinking the stigma

Dr Sheri Jacobson is the CEO and cofounder of Harley Therapy, which she set up in 2006 following her work with MIND, MENCAP, women's centres, alcohol advice centres and the NHS. Lucy Chesters caught up with her to discuss the stigma of mental health, and how journaling and mindfulness are practices that we should all be doing…

Rethinking the stigma

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Tell us a bit more about what you do at Harley Therapy, and about your journey so far.

Harley Therapy was set up as a solo practice in 2006, which I grew to become London’s largest chain of psychiatry clinics; we now have 45 practitioners across six London locations, and have worked with over 20,000 clients over the past 12 years. We’ve had over 250,000 sessions with clients, who come to us with mild to major conditions; we work with individuals, families, couples, and children, with a wide range of issues, from trauma to bereavement and beyond.

Last year, I was really keen to democratise therapy to make it accessible and affordable for everyone. So, we’ve created a marketplace for therapists UK wide, where they can advertise their services; the Harley Therapy Platform conducts the quality control, curation and monitoring. It means that clients can book a therapist in a simple way.

Our Harley Therapy Platform matchmaking service is driven by an algorithm, which presents the best therapists to you; ranks the therapists based on a number of parameters, and makes services a lot more transparent, as our system is review based.

Can you tell us more about the health tech sector at the moment – you were recently over in Silicon Valley – were there any interesting innovations that you saw?

I was invited to Silicon Valley in May 2018 as part of the Mayor of London’s Female Founders Trade Mission. There’s a lot of movement in the health space – it’s one of the areas that is so vital, yet there’s not as many resources or as much creativity going into it compared to a field such as space exploration. We don’t know enough about our own bodies and how they work, yet we’re able and willing to explore other territories.

There are several really interesting and important health tech initiatives in happening in Silicon Valley at the moment; diagnostics, such as wearables or injestibles to monitor our physical and mental health.

Recently, there have been many advances in treatment and the way that health services are delivered. Take mental health as an example, as well as traditional face to face therapy, we can now conduct short therapy sessions via email or text message, and in a short form through apps. And, there’s computerised therapy which is delivered by chatbots. An interesting tech aspect of therapy coming out of Silicon Valley are the experiments and trials with augmented reality and virtual reality – these usually focus on trauma, and reimagine scenarios to help with phobias; they’re also able to implant better memories, for those suffering from trauma.

Theoretics is a very interesting space; there’s been a lot of energy put into exploring artificial intelligence. So, for example, we’re seeing therapist robots, which learn from human therapeutic interaction.

With a surge in mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm, do you feel like happiness has become a business?

It’s a good thing… Consumers are generally savvier, and with more access to information such as reviews of therapists – it means that they have a voice. If there’s something untoward, or you’ve experienced something to the detriment of your wellbeing – you can vocalise that. We’re living in a self-monitoring culture.

You describe Harley Therapy as an ‘Airbnb for therapists’ – can you tell me about the demand for mental health services at the minute?

The demand for mental health services is growing, and the stigma is being eroded. Part of what we want to achieve at Harley Therapy, is that we want therapy to be cool. Therapy is nothing to be ashamed of, and more and more people that are starting to open up to that standpoint. Eventually, we will see mental health the same as we see physical health. The demand for therapists with Harley Therapy each month is growing by about 25%; there’s lots of interest across the board as more and more of people are looking towards self-improvement.

In today’s fast-paced, very much tech-driven society – how do you encourage people to take a step back from the daily grid and take a moment for themselves?

Mindfulness is topical and for a reason – it’s very effective.

It’s important to encourage the habit of a daily mindfulness practice that suits you personally – whether that be ten minutes in the morning, or a five-minute mindfulness break at lunch – it’s important to make it as habitual as brushing your teeth. If ten minutes per day is too much, make it two minutes – or choose to do a gratitude exercise instead. It’s all about making a ritual and sticking to it.

Do you have any tips and tricks for people, who might want to start improving their emotional wellbeing?

Get to know yourself and build a toolkit of resources that works for you – when times get rough, and you need a rescue plan, you will have a number of things that can help. That might be taking a walk in the park, watching a comedy sketch, calling a friend, going for group therapy, tidying up, or reading – there are so many different things that you can do to lift your mood.

What are the methods that you use, yourself, to keep your mind healthy?

For me, diet is so important – diet and exercise. I eat healthy food and I go rollerblading – it’s great to get into a slow state where you can switch off and don’t realise you’re exercising. I also attend therapy once a week, which is group therapy, and I take a week-long digital detox once a year.

How important do you think it is to switch off from technology and keep a journal – the exercise of physically writing down what’s on your mind?

I think it’s a really a useful tool. One of our problems today is we don’t hear our own voices; our voice is clouded by other people’s perspectives; other people’s news and views. It’s very important to stay true to our own voice – and the act of putting pen to paper can be surprisingly revealing.

Turn your notifications off, unless you really need them – unless they’re critical. With regards to email, I use SaneBox – which filters my less important emails until later on. The less noise the better. There’s an energy cost incurred from switching from task to task – you’ve expended energy by switching from one task to another – multitasking is not efficient for the brain.

What’s next for you, and for Harley Therapy?

We want to change the perception of mental health therapy, and make an impact in terms of attitude – we want to get as close to that as possible.

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