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The Transition From Patient to Mental Health Advocate

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I have always wondered what drives people to make real changes in the mental healthcare system in Canada. As someone who has personal experience with the system, and as part of The Mighty community, I wondered how people actually impact the way we access care.

I sat down with Chakameh Shafii, co-founder and CEO of TranQool, to find out more about her journey from patient to change-maker. For context, TranQool is an online counseling platform that allows people to speak with psychologists and social workers through secure video calls.

Leslie: When did you first start experiencing trouble with your mental health?

Chakameh: I have always had anxiety, but for a long time I considered it normal nervousness. I have a background in mechanical engineering, so when I was going through university, I was surrounded by like-minded people. This environment further normalized the anxiety I was feeling. Everyone around me was also having trouble sleeping and stressing about every grade point.

Leslie: What made you acknowledge there was an issue and actually seek help?

Chakameh: After I had graduated and began working was when I started having panic attacks. The anxiety began interfering with my day-to-day life. It was at that point that I went to my family doctor looking for help and she gave me some medication. I immediately felt uncomfortable with the idea of just taking medication without a proper diagnosis. My aunt knew a psychiatrist and he mentioned I should try therapy. I had to try three different therapists before I found the one who helped me with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Leslie: Why didn’t you stop and give up after the first therapist?

Chakameh: I wasn’t feeling like myself and I 100 percent wanted to get better. In my mind, not getting better was never an option. I wanted to get back to doing the things I loved without being held back by my fears.

Leslie: Relative to many others, you didn’t face many barriers to getting help. When did you start noticing the system was broken?

Chakameh: It was after I had done therapy and completed CBT. I began suggesting therapy to many people and I would constantly get the same responses. My friends and family would tell me that therapy was unaffordable for them, or that they didn’t have the time, or the means to find the right therapist. It was then that I began to see this must be an issue beyond my own network.

Leslie: Why did you feel it was your responsibility to take action and change the system?

Chakameh: It was not necessarily me feeling responsible for building something like TranQool, but rather, it was a way to help as many people I could. I didn’t want people to feel the way I had felt before getting help. It really began with me looking for a solution for my friends, and when I discovered you couldn’t use Skype, I knew we needed to build something to solve this issue.

Leslie: When you began, what was your number one goal?

Chakameh: I just wanted to build something that would last and actually reach people. We had to make sure that what we built was something people wanted to use. My co-founders and I were in a very precarious position because we were building something for people in distress. We really needed to be sensitive to that fact.

Leslie: Where are you on the path to achieving that goal?

Chakameh: We’ve come a long way and have realized there are people who do want video therapy. There are people who do want help, but are just unwilling to fight through the existing barriers. It is really fulfilling to get testimonials from people who were in the dark place I used to be in but have since recovered. It’s amazing to see that we have helped people like one client, with severe social anxiety, leave their home and see their grandmother in the hospital. Or someone who was on disability for their depression be well enough to get back to work.

Leslie: What are some of the barriers you have faced along the way?

Chakameh: Even when you are trying to get one person to give therapy a chance, you have to convince them to overcome the stigma and barriers. With TranQool, we’re trying to do that on a much larger scale, so you can only imagine the difficulties. That is why one of our primary focuses is to educate people on the benefits of therapy. Personally, as someone who has lived through the dark periods of anxiety, I constantly have to make sure my team and I are paying attention to our own mental health. As a startup, we sometimes get sucked into a lifestyle of always working, which is why taking preventative measures to keep healthy has been one of my priorities.

Leslie: What advice would you give to other people who want to make a difference?

Chakameh: Making a difference in even one person’s life is a big deal. If you can turn one person’s day around, you have already made a huge impact and should feel proud of yourself. Even at TranQool, we place a huge emphasis on individual customer care. We know it may not take a lot from us, but we have the power to change that person’s day. We can take them from a really dark place to being able to go out and live their life.

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Lead image provided by contributor.

Originally published: July 10, 2017
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