After Snagging Two Star Athletes As Investors, this App Is Now Tacking The Mental Health Space

Along with its latest funding round that raised $37 million, mental health platform Real also is adding a high-profile athlete as an advisor to its already stacked deck of athlete and celeb investors.

American professional soccer player, World Cup winner and Olympian Megan Rapinoe is joining the New York City-based Real as an advisor to Real Founder and CEO, Ariela Safira. Rapinoe will discuss different topics in mental health, share her own experiences with Real, and help support the company’s reach as it looks to expand its access to care.

As more athletes open up about the importance of mental health, many are jumping into a wide range of roles in the mental health space. Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s candor around mental health attracted a variety of sponsors while Olympian Simone Biles joined the mental health subscription company Cerebral as its chief impact officer. Minneapolis Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks joins Rapinoe as another star athlete investing in Real.

“I’m excited to see progress in our industry while also recognizing there’s still a long way to go when it comes to reducing stigma surrounding mental health challenges and providing all Americans with access to quality mental health care,” Rapinoe wrote in an e- mail to Inc.

There are a number of factors that deter people from seeking mental health services: affordability, accessibility and stigma top the list. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an Arlington, Virginia-based advocacy group, estimates that almost half of the 60 million American adults and children that have mental health conditions go without care.

Real’s Safira, 27, sees a clear need to fill, a need she first discovered during her college years at Stanford, when a friend attempted to commit suicide. “Why is it that the first time that my friend met a mental health clinician was when she attempted to take her life?” she asks. And she wonders: what would it be like if someone saw a primary care physician for the first time only if they had cancer or a heart attack?

Safira spent years learning about the mental healthcare system, which included researching treatments and suicide prevention methods and re-designing therapy clinics. She even embarked on bike rides across different countries to raise money for suicide prevention. Prior to found Real, Safira was enrolled in a postgraduate clinical program at Columbia University where she was studying to become a therapist. But she left the program in 2019 to launch Real instead.

“The entire system is broken,” Safira says. “We are building a mental healthcare system with the assumption that therapists are comparable to medical doctors. But we invest less in training therapists than we do medical doctors.”

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Safira founded Real, which now has 47 employees, in 2019. To date, the company has raised $53 million. Safira declined to share the company’s annual revenue.

Her first plan of attack is to make mental health care services more accessible, which means making it affordable. The average cost to see a therapist hovers between $100 to $200 per session, numbers that climb for those living in urban areas.

That’s one barrier that Real wants to break. The Real mobile app has a menu of payment plans: users pay $165 for an annual plan, $105 for six months or $24 on a monthly basis. In return, users will have access to Real’s programs, wellness exercises, therapist-led events, and mental wellness tracking. With May being Mental Health Awareness month, Real is offering discounted pricing through April 27.

Real offers on-demand group therapy sessions that it refers to as “pathways,” provided through a group of therapists. These pathways include depression, relationships and body image. Safira says that Real interviewed 126 therapists before whittling the pool down to its founding group of five. To date, Real has five clinicians, four therapists and one psychiatrist.

Access also includes flexibility since Real allows users to schedule sessions outside of the typical 9-to-5 framework. Via pathways, users can access care on their schedule. Safira says being able to access care during the late hours of the night might lead to more breakthroughs.

The group therapy model, which allows users to shield their identities, also reduces some of the awkwardness people may feel during one-on-one therapy sessions. Real’s internal research shows that a majority of its members who explore Real’s sexuality pathway did not discuss their sexuality during one-on-one therapy sessions.

Safira says that a startup such as Real needs a different kind of investor. “Being open to visionary ideas like this requires bringing on visionary investors,” Safira says. That includes the likes of actress/entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow from Goop as well as pro athletes such as Kendricks. He told Inc. about some of the unique stresses that athletes face. Throughout his career, Kendricks says that players felt that mental health was just something that “you had to be tough about.” He’s glad to see that the stigma is changing since being a football player isn’t always rosy.

Take job security–that’s a big ball of stress since spots on the team are generally not guaranteed and most NFL careers are relatively short. “You have guys who, obviously, are the stars in the team, and maybe their security on the team is a little bit more solid,” he says, adding that “a lot of guys on the team are fighting for a roster spot each and every day.”

Knowing that and being able to perform is one thing, but having that pressure as a constant can loom over athletes and weigh them down, Kendricks says. There’s a real benefit to being able to talk through some of those pressures, he adds.

Mental health can also take a hit when injuries happen. For someone used to being strong and having their body in peak physical condition, an injury can be emotionally devastating. “When these injuries come about in time, it humbles you and puts you in a place where you may need help with something,” Kendricks says. “The things that are normal tasks become extremely difficult or almost impossible to do on your own.”

There’s also a different response to an athlete with a visible injury, like a broken bone, and an athlete going through an injury that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Like many football players, Kendricks has had to deal with a concussion, an injury that can take weeks, and even months, to fully recover from. Although concussion protocols are now in place in most sports, Kendricks says the pressure to perform can weigh on athletes to either tough it out or question their own strength.

“As an alpha male in our situation, or as someone who is used to providing and being that figure that family or friends look up to, [an injury] could be kind of a wake up call and very hard to deal with at times,” he says, adding that he feels “like injury and therapy almost go hand-in-hand.”

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