Mental Health Champions: Why & How Irad Eichler of Circles Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

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Be present — To me, being present is about noticing what you feel in a situation, and paying attention to what the other person in an interaction might be feeling as well. For example, rather than texting during a meeting or multi-tasking, devote your focus to the person you are speaking with. Notice what’s going on around you in a neutral way. Don’t judge or assess a situation, but rather, simply observe your surroundings and carefully listen to the people you’re with. This establishes stronger connections with people in your support network, in your professional life, and with the world around you.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Irad Eichler, co-founder and CEO, Circles.

Irad Eichler is the co-founder and CEO of online emotional support platform, Circles, which puts members with shared experiences into small support groups of 6–8 people, led by licensed mental health providers. He is also the founder of The Shekulo Tov Group, which helps people with psychiatric disabilities reach their functional goals, and he has been recognized by the United Nations for his work with those with mental health issues and developmental disabilities. He holds an MBA from the Academic College for Management, and received an Executive Certificate in Public Leadership from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in cities, and moved around a lot when I was younger. It made me join new groups of friends frequently so I had to learn how to make friends quickly. I learned how hard it is to join new groups of people, and it also taught me about the loneliness that comes with moving so many times. I found that being part of a group of friends feels incredibly meaningful and can bring relief to that loneliness.

As an adult, I didn’t want my family to feel that loneliness, which is why we’ve only moved once, to a Kibbutz, when my children were little, and we likely won’t move again. A Kibbutz is a small community of people who all know each other and support each other. The goal of the Kibbutz is to create a nurturing environment for all who live there. We make sure everyone in the community has everything they need to be happy, healthy and safe. Here I see a clear correlation between the Kibbutz lifestyle and what we’re trying to build with Circles, which is an emotional support system for people going through specific life challenges.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Circles is an emotional support platform that enables meaningful connections through small groups of around 6–8 people facing similar experiences. Groups are led by professional facilitators and the focus of these little communities is mutual care. The platform creates groups or “Circles” by matching people who are dealing with similar issues in their lives and are seeking intimate and private emotional support sessions where they can be understood in a way other online support groups don’t offer. Our goal is to empower people to heal together.

Right now, Circles is exclusively an emotional support platform, but it could go much further in the future, building strong, small communities that offer all kinds of support. Ultimately, Circles is built on the core principle that, in order to overcome life’s challenges, you need to be seen and heard by people that, as a result of similar experiences, truly understand what you are going through. Those are the types of interactions we are enabling, in order to help people heal.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When my mother was battling cancer, I witnessed her dealing with loneliness. She told me that she didn’t feel that anyone really understood what she was going through except a friend who was battling the same cancer. In dealing with my own sadness and loneliness during this time, I felt similarly that only people going through the same thing could understand my struggle. My siblings and I were experiencing the same loss, while our father was dealing with a different kind of grief, losing a spouse. That’s why Circles came to be. Connecting people that are suffering in similar ways is a more effective method of addressing that loneliness and pain, and finding relief together.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Before Circles, I experimented with other solutions and opened chat groups for people in their 20s and 30s dealing with loneliness that had no personal support system in place. Many people started signing up, so we quickly created an app, which wasn’t the best in the world. Once people started joining sessions they decided the app wasn’t great, so they moved the group to WhatsApp and SMS. A week later I was devastated because I wanted them to use the app, but then one of the original members signed in to the app and essentially said, “Hey is there anybody here, I’m really really lonely.” This was heartbreaking to me, and this was an “Aha” moment because I realized that having a reliable small community within the app was what this person was looking for. So after that, I decided to build a much better app to provide that resource.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

During the holidays, around 31 million Americans deal with extreme loneliness, so at the end of 2021 we offered 500 free hours of Circles to people experiencing loneliness. I joined one of the Circles focused on grief, which I continue to struggle with. The session was five women and me. All of them started the session with their cameras off, but one by one they started to turn on their cameras as we all shared more of our stories. Ten minutes into the session we were all crying, and within 15 minutes we all had our cameras on and were very present and supportive of one another. I actually get emotional thinking about this. Even though it was painful for all of us, it was healing to experience that type of support and be seen by someone that understands what you’re going through.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I am fortunate to work with a great mentor that has helped me focus and build Circles, Lior Berger. One of the biggest challenges for a founder is that you move from strategy to tactics in a blink of an eye. One moment you pitch the vision to a potential partner that can change the course of your company and the next you need to decide on the agenda of your next leadership meeting. From the moment I met Lior, he helped to guide me back to our core strategy. He asked me, “Imagine the world with Circles in it.” This is how he set the tone of our conversations. I am lucky to have him as a supporter and an inspiration.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Over the past two years, mental health has taken a huge hit across the globe, in large part, because support systems have been broken down as a result of the pandemic, separating people from their loved ones. I think the challenge right now for mental health is understanding that talking to other people can bring relief, which is counter intuitive to many of us. Because of social media, which pushes us to highlight how great life is, we can be resistant to showing vulnerability to others for fear that it will be off-putting or burdensome. But if we can help people understand that sharing our struggles and being openly vulnerable is healing, we can start to break down those barriers and enable resilience.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Change in mental health support needs to come from the top down. Leaders in all spaces should be more open about experiencing every day mental health struggles like anxiety, stress, fear, loneliness and more. Having these feelings isn’t unusual and doesn’t make someone appear weak or less competent. Normalization requires frequent public representation of this openness.

Government entities and tech companies need to take steps to ensure that social media is not damaging public mental health. Data shows how harmful social media can be to individual self esteem, which can lead to deeper mental health issues. More care must be taken to minimize those unhealthy effects. On an individual level this openness should be practiced as well. Removing the fear of vulnerability is crucial to removing the stigma of mental health. And by removing that stigma, our society can move forward in creating safe spaces for people to address mental health issues of all kinds.

Additionally, there needs to be more awareness of the variety of options for emotional wellbeing support. One-on-one therapy is not the only path, and group support is an accessible, effective and scalable option as well.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Share and be Open

Co-founder relationships are complex, unique, and crucial to the success of a company. My Circles co-founder and I made the unorthodox choice to go to couples therapy to address some issues we were having as a leadership team, even in the midst of success and growth of the company. With company growth came more stress and we became a less effective leadership team. We ended up publishing an article about our experience in the spirit of transparency, because we found success in couples therapy as a professional pair, and knew that others could benefit from such information. Choosing this path made us stronger leaders individually and together, and we deliberately shared our journey, knowing that our openness could help others.

Foster Compassion

Fostering compassion is a tenet of what we do at Circles. It’s not just about putting together the best of the best, it’s about putting together a team that reflects society and cares and supports one another.

Be Active

For me, waking up in the morning and being proactive physically is really good for my mental health. When I’m active I feel a difference in my state of mind. This also applies to being active in conversations and interactions with others. An example is that recently, my team and I had a conversation about some new features for our product, and I deliberately made an effort to be active in my participation. As a result, I had meaningful interactions with my colleagues, which positively impacted my mood.

Be present

To me, being present is about noticing what you feel in a situation, and paying attention to what the other person in an interaction might be feeling as well. For example, rather than texting during a meeting or multi-tasking, devote your focus to the person you are speaking with. Notice what’s going on around you in a neutral way. Don’t judge or assess a situation, but rather, simply observe your surroundings and carefully listen to the people you’re with. This establishes stronger connections with people in your support network, in your professional life, and with the world around you.

Remember that Everything Will be Ok

I’ve learned in life that things can break down and snafus can happen dozens of times a day with so many moving parts. It’s important to remember that ultimately everything will be ok. You are loved, and you have people you love. No matter what happens, things will eventually be ok.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I really love listening to podcasts and reading books about how people built or created something, and their experience in that process. One example of a podcast I like is The NFX Podcast. I find that the interviews are very authentic and I appreciate hearing how founders overcome various challenges. These stories inspire me, and as a founder myself, I can both relate to, and learn from, the experiences of others.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The thing people should know about making a positive impact in the world is that it’s really addictive. Doing things that help others can provide you with a genuine sense of meaning that you may have never experienced before. As the founder of a mission-based company, I tell new employees to prepare themselves because once you join a company that makes a real difference in the world, you’ll never want to go back to doing jobs that don’t have the same impact. Once you understand how much of a positive influence you can have on the lives of others, you’ll never want to give that up.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Irad Eichler of Circles Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.