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A Friend in Your Corner

Yourdost.com provides online counseling and emotional support.


When Richa Singh was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, a hostel-mate committed suicide out of the fear of not getting a job. No one knew about her debilitating anxiety or pain. Singh believed that access to counseling could have prevented this. Even though most educational institutes have counselors and psychologists on campus, few students avail the services. This was something she noticed at work as well. “People around me were stressed due to job pressures and relationship issues,” she says. “Most were not willing to talk about their problems, fearing they would be labeled mentally ill.”

This silence and stigma around the issue of mental health bothered Singh. She thought if counseling could be made discreet and anonymous then, perhaps, more people would opt for it. She discussed this idea with her colleague at an investment firm, Puneet Manuja, who came on board immediately as the co-founder and chief operating officer of their new company. “He had faced placement pressures even though he was a gold medalist in his batch at NIT [National Institute of Technology] Calicut. We brainstormed together to create YourDOST,” says Singh. Yourdost is an online counseling and emotional support platform designed to foster mental wellness.

Satyajeet Nandekar, another co-founder, loved the idea of YourDOST as well. “I remember discussing the idea with him and, in less than 24 hours, he was actually coding the site,” says Singh. They surveyed thousands of people and conducted focus groups to understand the type of counseling most required. And, 85 percent of the respondents said that they needed something like Yourdost.com.

Online support

Yourdost.com went live in December 2014. The platform has over 1,000 psychologists, counselors, life coaches, career guides, relationship advisors and more. YourDOST is also available as a mobile phone app. It offers 24x7 private, confidential and anonymous access to experts in various modes. People can have one-on-one sessions with experts via messaging or live chats. Appointments can also be booked for voice and video calls.

Additionally, users are encouraged to connect with multiple people and experts on forums and blogs. These services are available on a “freemium” model—some of these services are currently available for free while others, like the video and voice call services, are charged.

Singh and the YourDOST team plan to make the platform sustainable by increasing its reach in the country, spreading awareness about depression and the need for counseling, and getting more subscribers to use the paid services. “We’re expanding into the B2B2C [business to business to consumer] model, to offer our services to stakeholders in corporate and educational institutions,” says Singh.

The site logs nearly 2,000 sessions a day. Over 35 percent of the users are students and young professionals who want to seek emotional guidance and support related to academics and career. About 30 percent of the queries are about relationships—love, marriage, changes in life post-marriage and divorce. About 20 percent are from parents about dealing with the pressures of motherhood, career and teenage children. About 15 percent come from entrepreneurs and people trying to set up their businesses.

Milestones and challenges
In 2016, Singh was one of the winners at the Women Entrepreneurs Quest, which is sponsored by AnitaB.org India and the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, and supported and organized by the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum. The contest showcases tech start-ups founded by women entrepreneurs in India. “I was a part of the empoWer accelerator program, an initiative by Zone Startups India, for supporting women entrepreneurs,” says Singh. “The prize included an experiential learning trip to Silicon Valley.”

Yourdost.com is three years old now. Along the way, the team has learned some important lessons. “When we first started, we would use a lot of negative reinforcements in our communications,” says Singh. “For example, we would ask, ‘Are you stressed?’ or ‘Are you going through a bad breakup?’ We didn’t realize that these comments were off-putting to people and discouraged them from using our counseling services.”

Convincing psychologists and counselors to be a part of the service was another challenge. While some were convinced that combining technology and psychology would work, others were skeptical. “We asked them to try us out,” says Singh. “We wanted them to see the potential of counseling online for themselves.”

Singh and her co-founders believe that the depth of therapy is not determined by the medium it takes place in, but by other factors like the expertise of the therapist as well as the client’s willingness to make change. They constantly test various models and scenarios in a bid to make online counseling more effective “The fact that our reach has increased multifold in the past year is a big victory for counseling as a whole,” says Singh. “I believe that YourDOST is a complement to face-to-face counseling, and not a substitute for it.”

 

Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.