Marc Svensson, Founder, and CEO of Helsa tells us about providing mental health support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Marc Svensson: We are all doing well, thank you. I live with my partner Luca in London, and we’ve both been incredibly busy with our respective jobs throughout the pandemic. I’m originally from Sweden and Luca from Italy, and although our families are doing well, it’s been an awfully long time since we last were able to see either. Last Christmas was the first I spent away from my family in Sweden ever.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Helsa.
Marc Svensson: I’m a social scientist researching sexual and gender minority identity formation and its relationship with health, stress, and resilience, as well as with happiness and fulfillment. My research is focused on understanding and unpacking the root causes of stigma, shame, and discrimination in the LGBTQ+ community, to ultimately help identify, address and eliminate it. I realized that although research is incredibly important, it is not alone providing the all-encompassing, holistic approach needed to combat and concur stigma and shame in the LGBTQ+ community, so that’s why I founded Helsa.
Due to the heteronormative society we live in, LGBTQ+ people are 3-4 times more likely to suffer from common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. We are also more likely to develop drug misuse dependency and commit suicide. And those figures are even more alarming if we look exclusively at gender minority people. At Helsa, we are addressing these health disparities by conducting research but also providing mental health support to LGBTQ+ people and delivering training workshops to organizations to help educate the wider population about the issues the LGBTQ+ community is facing.
We got early-stage backing from Bethnal Green Ventures, Europe’s leading tech for good early-stage VC, in 2019. We were last year selected as one of the finalists of Conception X, a venture programme that helps Ph.D. researchers turn into venture scientists.
How does Helsa innovate?
Marc Svensson: Helsa is innovative in the way we create, develop and deliver digital services and solutions that help improve mental health and well-being in the LGBTQ+ community.
In the support department, we are providing well-being tests, allowing our users to assess their levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as minority stress, which refers to unique stress that LGBTQ+ people experience because of our minority gender and/or sexual identity. We also have over 50 LGBTQ+ specialized partner therapists on the platform and have developed a matching algorithm that helps our users find the therapist that is best suited for their specific needs and requirements.
In the training department, we deliver digital interactive, entertaining, and research-based training workshops on LGBTQ+ topics. We are always looking at new ways of delivering our workshops and are currently working on a very exciting and innovative digital project that I am not allowed to talk about publicly just yet. It will all be revealed later in the year.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business?
Marc Svensson: As we are all unfortunately acutely aware, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been detrimental to people’s mental health in general. Furthermore, some evidence suggests it’s been particularly bad for LGBTQ+ people, as we are more likely not to have children and live on our own, thus struggling more with isolation and loneliness.
So the demand for mental health support has increased dramatically, but at the same time, people’s finances have also been affected negatively. We have subsequently seen an increase in demand for affordable mental health support solutions.
Another way in which the coronavirus pandemic has affected our business is in how it has forced everything online. When we were building our platform and recruited LGBTQ+ specialized therapists, we started off by offering therapy sessions both online and offline, with the long-term plan to shift it all online. This move happened a lot more suddenly than we had planned and essentially forced even the most reluctant therapists to make a move to online services if they were to survive.
This is, in particular, a benefit for a company like ours, catering to a very targeted and narrow part of the population. Offering online therapy means that a client living in a remote village in the north of England can ‘see’ their preferred specialized LGBTQ+ therapists, regardless of where they are based. This is also beneficial to our clients in terms of affordability, as therapists based outside the metropolitan areas are often able to offer lower prices due to their living costs being lower. It’s such a pleasure to be able to help LGBTQ+ people looking for mental health support with specialized LGBTQ+ therapists that are right for their specific needs, no matter where in the country (or the world for that sake!) they are based.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding your product roadmap, and what are the lessons learned?
Marc Svensson: We are a start-up and therefore naturally learn many lessons as we go along. I thrive on coming up with creative ideas, testing them out, and learning from the experiences. We are 100% clear about what our mission is and know that it will require more than one solution or product to achieve it. Our challenge is to learn which solutions and products are the most efficient and engaging, and the only way to do that is by testing them out, whilst being fully immersed in the LGBTQ+ community, to understand what people want and need. Everyone working at Helsa identifies within the LGBTQ+ community, which is important at this early stage to ensure that we fully understand our users and their unique perspective and needs.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Marc Svensson: No, we have not received any government grants at all but have managed fine without it.
What are the plans for Helsa for the rest of 2021?
Marc Svensson: We are currently working on several exciting projects, some I can speak about and some that are confidential at the moment.
Our training workshops are currently being rolled out across the UK, and the workshop offering will expand further later in the year. We are working on a highly innovative digital project that will take our training workshops to a new, even more interactive, level but as mentioned before, I am not allowed to reveal anything more about that project just yet.
On the research side, we are currently running an online survey that explores how people in the UK shape their sexual and gender identities in 2021. We are looking for participants of all sexualities (including straight), genders, ages, and backgrounds, as long as you are over 18 and currently reside in the UK. If any reader is interested in participating, you can find out more about the survey here.
The support side of the platform will see a big overhaul in Q4 with a more holistic approach being launched, introducing several new forms of support services, catering to particularly urgent concerns we have identified in the community during our first two years in business.
More will be revealed later in the year.
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