The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

SSA students, faculty member, assist mental healthcare startup

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the College, and the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) have converged in a mental health startup called Talklet. The platform connects qualified listeners to people who want to talk and feel heard.

Co-founder Amy Ma, AB '20, had gotten used to having access to student counseling services and other wellness resources that are available to University of Chicago students. But while working as a summer intern, she had a different experience.

"I realized that mental health resources outside of the university are really hard to access," Ma said. The experience motivated her and several fellow students to launch Talklet, which is currently accepting new users on their waitlist.

Talket team at the College New Venture Challenge eventTalklet was one of 21 teams that presented their startup ideas to a panel of experts last March in the Polsky Center's 2020 College New Venture Challenge. Talklet, now led by Kristen Lam, AB '21, collected $10,000 to support its venture by placing third in the finals.

"Talklet is not therapy," Ma said. "We provide 30-minute sessions where someone can just talk about whatever's on their mind." As a COVID-19 precaution, Talklet's listeners, who are SSA students, conduct sessions with users via an online video platform.

Ma and her partners enlisted helpful feedback from SSA students during the planning stages. Talklet also engaged SSA Associate Professor Miwa Yasui to gain her expert advice. An unusual aspect of the business is its potential appeal to clients who may be reluctant to pursue conventional therapy, Yasui said.

Talklet's founders met with SSA students both in one-on-one sessions and in focus groups. "They were really thoughtful about making sure that people could access Talklet," Ma said. "Several SSA students mentioned how they didn't want cost to be an issue."

Ma understood the concern. As a summer intern, she faced a three-week wait for a 45-minute, $200 session. "I had to go out and find this person by myself. It just seemed like the barriers to entry for mental healthcare were really high." Talklet recognized the need for people to access mental health resources especially during this pandemic. As such, the team temporarily lowered the price of a session in hopes to reach and help more people.

SSA students help Talklet achieve its goal of making mental health support more informal, convenient, and affordable.

"While SSA students are not of course licensed counselors, they are a great fit for having an informal advising session with someone to tell them about the variety of mental healthcare options that are out there," Ma said.

After the COVID-19 lockdown, SSA students Alyson Holsclaw and Briahna Williams offered advice to the Talklet team via Zoom. They covered topics such as confidentiality, terms and agreements with clients, and how to describe the service without using potentially stigmatizing language on the startup's website. They both continue to work as a Talklet listener part-time.

Holsclaw, a clinical concentration student, focuses her studies on third-wave behavioral interventions and trauma-responsive care, and is especially interested in issues related to late childhood and young adulthood. Williams, also a clinical concentration student, is enrolled in the School Social Work Program of Study, and is especially interested in addressing the holistic well-being of high-school students and enhancing their social-emotional toolkit for post-graduation success.

Both students welcome Talklet as an opportunity to insert bite-sized chunks of clinical experience into their busy schedules.

"I was able to talk to people about relationship issues, work issues, stress," Holsclaw said. "It was nice to talk in a definitive way. In most of our [field placement] work the problems we deal with are so large and intractable that it's refreshing to have someone just say, 'I'm annoyed with my boyfriend. What should I do about this?'"

Holsclaw and Williams can draw upon their SSA training to help people meet their need for someone to discuss their problems. "First and foremost is giving them space, offering support, but in a way that empowers them to make their own decisions," Williams said.

SSA students do a lot of role-playing in class, Williams noted, "but it's not the same because we all know what to expect. We're all coming in with the same knowledge and framework versus being able to apply it, which is good for us in terms of building our clinical skill set but also having those experiences to bring back into the classroom."

Yasui highlighted Talklet as a way for SSA students to broaden their understanding of mental-health needs of people coming from different backgrounds. Schools of social work naturally focus on assisting disadvantaged populations. But through Talklet, students can interact with both with the disadvantaged "and those who might be more economically advantaged but may still struggle with mental-health issues," Yasui said.

For more information on Talklet, please email talkletteam@gmail.com.

--Steve Koppes