Mental Health Champions: Why & How Morgan Hewett and Kyle Pierce of Options MD Are Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
Daily walks with the dog: this is one of our most important ways to decompress. Walking outside provides the best of both worlds. It offers the physical benefits of exercise while also giving you sunshine, which is proven to boost your mood.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Morgan Hewett and Kyle Pierce, the Cofounders of Options MD.
Morgan Hewett and Kyle Pierce have turned to their most personal tragedies to change the conversation around mental healthcare. They are the co-founders behind Options MD: the telemedicine platform that provides personalized care for people struggling with severe and treatment-resistant mental illnesses, a $200B whitespace. As cofounders that are Black, queer, and Latinx they have broken barriers to be part of founders like them who have received VC funding.
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?
Morgan: We have been best friends for a decade and have supported each other through everything you can imagine during that time. So there is a deep trust built between us that inspires such confidence to make pursuing something so difficult, such as building a healthcare company, feel all the more feasible.
Kyle: We always talked about becoming entrepreneurs since we were younger, but before you have the context of what entrepreneurship truly entails, it’s more of this amorphous concept that doesn’t have much meaning. We were always taught that we possessed the tenacity to realize our goals; and when I think back to starting my own DVD rental delivery service as a teen or when Morgan was selling handmade postcards as a way to get visibility on her art, I realize we certainly always possessed the desire to build something.
Morgan: Life has thrown us a myriad of challenges we weren’t always sure we would come out of, but it has forced us to become problem-solvers, to never take “no” as final answer, and reconcile that pathways are never linear — lessons we have applied to this journey with Options MD.
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?
Kyle: The pandemic ushered in a wave of organizations addressing gaps in mental health care which is positive because it chiseled away at issues around accessibility of care and forced us to contend with stigma. But the vast majority of these companies, especially in the tech space, focus more on mild to mid-range mental illness and do not serve one of the most important subgroups of patients: those with treatment-resistant mental illnesses.
Treatment resistance affects 30% of people with mental illnesses, and occurs when these patients do not respond to 1st line treatments like antidepressants or talk therapy. These patients often have more severe forms of depression and require more advanced treatments that other platforms don’t support. Practically, for our patients, this treatment resistance iis the feeling of having tried it all, suffering for years through trial-and-error approaches, and feeling immense hopelessness.
Options MD exists to bring hope back to these patients by providing personalized care for people over telemedicine. We do this through proprietary software that predicts a patient’s best treatment options, an in-house network of specialists who deliver high quality care, and an online community that provides lasting support and engagement.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Morgan: We call this the company we didn’t want to start, but had no choice but to start. Kyle’s childhood friend was sexually assaulted on her college campus, failed multiple medications after developing severe depression and unfortunately committed suicide within the first year. Around the same time my close family member spent 8 years in a harrowing journey of multiple suicide attempts, 10 different treatments, and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent out of pocket to finally feel some balance with his mental health.
We felt like people shouldn’t have to choose between these two fates, so we wanted to introduce a cultural shift with the way we were approaching the treatment of severe mental illnesses. We leverage technology to bring the type of research-driven service only available at top institutions to those struggling with severe and treatment-resistant depression.
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?
Morgan: We had been thinking about Options MD for a while and, as cliche as it may sound, the pandemic forced us to make big decisions around taking the risk for the venture.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Kyle: Not every doctor trusts technology. When we first pitched Options MD to psychiatrists for feedback and potential partnership opportunities, one physician would not let us even finish the first sentence before lecturing us on how there was no place for technology in the doctor-patient experience. He reiterated that patients should solely rely on their doctors for medical advice and he didn’t even think that patients should use the internet to research their medication! We believe in working directly alongside the expertise of clinicians, but we learned the hard way that anytime you are doing something disruptive, there are going to be people who aggressively resist change. You may never win these people over, and you have to simply accept that and focus on people who see the need for change.
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?
Kyle: We have had a handful of mentors throughout our journey who have significantly changed the course of our company, but when we first began developing Options MD we were put in touch with Anna Barber who at the time was the Managing Director of Techstars LA. She was brilliant and lowkey, and she immediately saw the potential both in what we were building as well as our promise as founders. She challenged us to push ourselves hard to realize this vision and helped us matriculate into the Techstars UnitedHealthcare program.
Morgan: Funny enough, we kept in great touch with her as we iterated on the product over the past year and she now has invested in our most recent round with her fund, M13, who has made investments in amazing healthcare companies like Capsule and ClassPass.
Kyle: It truly is a testament to relationship building over time, which we have realized is one of the biggest assets, especially for companies like ours trying to do social good.
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?
Kyle: We personally are still extremely concerned about the stigma surrounding suicidal ideation. Part of the cause of stigma around suicide is due to our lack of recognition of depression as a fatal disease and suicidal ideation as a common symptom of depression. We often still shame people who battle it by saying things like “she took her own life” (which victim blames) instead of “she succumbed from suicide” (which recognizes the person as a victim of, not perpetrator of, suicide). At Options MD, we create guilt and shame free clinical experiences that meet patients where they are, regardless of the severity of their symptoms.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Morgan: Individuals should support and encourage their friends, families and loved ones who are in need of mental health treatment. People with severe mental illnesses often lack the energy to do things that we take for granted, such as searching for doctors. One simple way that you can help is simply offering to search for and help them secure an appointment with a psychiatrist.
Society needs to stop pressuring people to feel better so quickly! Mental illnesses take time to balance and patience is important.
The government needs to fund more medical training programs and incentivize more students to go into psychiatry. The US is experiencing a huge shortage of psychiatrists and we need 3,000 more psychiatrists to meet the current demand for mental health services. This shortage results in scarcity and higher prices for care.
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?
- Daily walks with the dog: this is one of our most important ways to decompress. Walking outside provides the best of both worlds. It offers the physical benefits of exercise while also giving you sunshine, which is proven to boost your mood.
- Laughing: As trite as it might sound, we’ll sometimes tell jokes or watch funny video clips after difficult meetings to get ourselves back into a good mood. This is one of the perks of working with your best friend, I guess.
- Aerobic exercise: Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression. We personally like taking spin classes together.
- Strength training: Lifting heavy weights makes us feel strong and empowered!
- Therapy and medication: We aren’t ashamed of whatever it takes to get you to a place of mental wellbeing, as long as you are consulting a physician.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
We are all about podcasts!
Morgan: I love “Therapy for Black Girls”
Kyle: I’ve been listening to “Other People’s Problems”
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?
Both: Social impact and business success are not mutually exclusive!
How can our readers follow you online?
Morgan: If you or someone you love is currently suffering from severe or treatment-resistant depression, you can find out more about us at www.optionsmd.com. We also urge you to join our free Facebook community for support which you can find here: www.facebook.com/groups/optionsmd
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Mental Health Champions: Why & How Morgan Hewett and Kyle Pierce of Options MD Are Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.