Founder and CEO of Modern Health, Alyson Watson
Founder and CEO of Modern Health, Alyson Watson

This blog post comes from Alyson Watson, the Founder and CEO of Modern Health, a comprehensive mental wellness platform that has raised $42 million to provide mental health benefits to employees around the world. She presented at Cisco’s Women Rock-IT event on November 12. Click here to watch the recording on demand. 

We all know 2020 has been a really tough year. Here in the U.S., we’ve faced simultaneous crises impacting our daily lives—including the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment, racial injustice, wildfires, hurricanes, and a divisive national election. All these challenges have taken their toll on the mental health of many. In this recent survey by the American Psychological Association, it states that due to the stress of this year, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”

Social stigmas surrounding mental wellbeing

Mental health—or our psychological and emotional well-being—has gotten greater attention in recent years, and now many schools, workplaces, and healthcare settings offer some focus on mental health for their members. But as a society, we still have a long way to go and mental healthcare is surprisingly hard to access.

And I learned that lesson firsthand.

After I graduated from college at Johns Hopkins University, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to be near Silicon Valley; I had ambitions of someday starting my own company and wanted to be close to the action. But the move coincided with some challenging life events and I struggled with my own mental health and anxiety during that time. I decided to find a therapist to talk to, but I had a hard time finding one. I called around 30 people, only to learn most weren’t accepting new patients, didn’t call me back, or were too expensive for me. Finally, I found someone who agreed to a sliding pay scale I could afford, and I still see that therapist to this day, six years later.

A mental uphill battle

While I was lucky to find an arrangement that would work for me, most people don’t.

For starters, there is a huge shortage of therapists all over the world; in the U.S., there’s about one therapist for every 3,000 people.

Therapy is also expensive, both due to the shortage and the training required to become a therapist, making it unaffordable to most people unless it’s covered by health insurance. And most high-quality therapists are not in-network with health insurance companies because the insurance network pays them too little for their time.

It’s a big problem, because it means therapy is mostly accessible only to people who can pay for it. There’s also social stigma surrounding mental health, which prevents people from seeking care at all. And it can be a huge burden for a person struggling with depression or another clinical need to sort through a long list of potential providers. These are just a few of the challenges facing mental healthcare delivery today.

Establishing the fourth pillar of wellness

Inspired by these challenges and my personal experience, I started Modern Health, with a mission to deliver high-quality, evidence-based mental healthcare to as many people as possible—and the most efficient way to do that is through employee benefits.

When you get a job, in addition to your salary, you’re offered at least three standard benefits: health insurance, dental benefits, and vision benefits.

We envision a world in which mental health is the fourth standard benefit, and it’s already happening now. Our clients, like Pixar, Udemy, and Postmates, believe in prioritizing the mental health of their employees. These companies have engaged Modern Health to provide that care—including therapy, coaching, and app-based digital resources, like daily meditations, breathing exercises, and sleep help.

We’re proud to be part of a “fourth pillar” of benefits that continues to grow.

One of my favorite things about running a company is being part of an amazing team; it’s incredibly motivating to see how hard my colleagues work each day to grow our business and support our customers. We all try to create a workplace where we can be the best versions of ourselves, and we do that by investing in each other and our shared company culture.

We encourage our teammates to care for their mental health, and all employees can access the entire range of Modern Health offerings, including our network of therapists and coaches. And because we believe so deeply in better mental health for all, we’re driven by the problem of why it’s so hard to access mental healthcare—and energized to find a solution.

On the bell curve of mental health services

Everyone has mental health, and each person’s needs will change throughout their lifetime. In any one group of employees, individual mental healthcare needs tend to fall along a bell curve: Most people need moderate support, while a smaller population needs high-intensity support or low-intensity support.

Therapy is designed to serve people who need high-intensity support, so we are interested in finding non-therapy ways to deliver high-quality, evidence-based care to people with moderate and low-intensity needs.

At Modern Health, we offer mental health coaching to people with moderate mental health needs. Our certified coaches are trained in evidence-based techniques and can support employees with a range of life challenges including parenting stress, work performance, and habit changes. For people with low-intensity needs, we offer self-guided digital resources like online meditations and courses in things like building positivity, managing worry, and having tough conversations. By providing coaching for moderate mental health needs and digital resources for low-intensity needs, therapy remains available to those who really need it.

At Modern Health, we recognize that each person’s mental healthcare needs change over time as they encounter new experiences and challenges, so our care levels adjust as needs ebb and flow. By providing people the right level of care at the right time, we’ve found a way to sustainably support individual mental health, build resilience, and help people to thrive in our fast-paced world for the long run.

Inspired by this story? The Cisco Networking Academy offers free online technology courses that can help you kickstart your career. Click here to find out more.


Stacey Faucett

Manager, Sustainability Communications Governance and Compliance

Chief Sustainability Office