How One App Will Bring Relief to A Mental Health Problem We Can No Longer Deny

 Michael Quinones, Nicole Behnam, Ravi Sharma. Photos by Craig Cutler.

Michael Quinones, Nicole Behnam, Ravi Sharma. Photos by Craig Cutler.

People have and will always feel inclined to pathologize emotions and behavior, no matter how normal or abnormal. But does that mean you actually have a mental disorder? And even if you do, isn’t that more than OK, too?

Somewhere along the line, as we get older, we start to realize that it’s not about the success or the fame or the beauty that we’ve been taught to chase. Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Robin Williams are all tragic examples whose warnings we’ve come to heed: peace of mind is that magical thing we should be chasing after and investing in.

The problem of mental health couldn’t be more topical nor urgent. Accessibility, cost, and stigma have paralyzed us from getting the help that we need, and yet more help is out there than ever before. Where is the missing link?

As of now, nearly every other human need is met instantly via mobile. We can hop in a Lyft in a moment’s notice, track our ramen’s exact time of arrival, and get a date in just a few swipes. But our ability to connect with quality mental health support is still a maze of a process.

At least until now.

I sat down with Ravi Sharma and Michael Quinones, two men determined to take on the mental healthcare space and build a community for good. Their mental health mobile app OOTify, (“oot” or “uth” in Hindi, meaning up) offers human beings a place to seek professional help during tough times. They officially launched earlier this month out of the USC Marshall Greif Center Incubator.

“People aren’t connecting with [health] providers in an ideal way,” Ravi tells me. “There’s no marketplace where you can search and immediately connect with a therapist or coach that’s a perfect fit. Chemistry is important when opening up about sensitive subjects.”

The OOTify app is designed to connect people to mental health professionals, life coaches, and verified mentors who ultimately empower them to develop a healthy mind and relationships...without baiting them into any confusing long-term contracts.

Beyond access, a lot of our own cultural baggage stands in the way of society addressing the mental health crisis head on. Ravi knows first hand.

“I’m Indian…and the Indian culture is thousands of years old—so rich and beautiful. That history does come with some resistance to change—talking about mental health is not easy in our culture.”

Frankly, there aren’t many cultures who can say they’re great at it.

While Ravi was at USC, his parents were going through a tough separation, very quietly, because that’s the way they do it in their culture, he said. “We had tried to resolve the issues on our own as a family with a natural impact on our collective mental health, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I said ‘hey mom, dad what if we tried therapy?’ They resisted, but I went through the process and found a therapist anyway. Within a year of getting help and working on their marriage proactively, they are now in a very happy place. We all are.”

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And that’s when Ravi had his “aha moment” where he realized therapy can work—even for those cultures so resistant to change. Years ago, he thought that would be the toughest mental health challenge he would have to deal with in his lifetime. But then in 2016, he lost a friend to suicide.

“I knew I couldn’t have any more loved ones go through this alone...one was too much,” he said. “So with my background with startups and finance, I looked at the market and didn’t see anything that addressed the problem that would have helped my personal circumstances. I wrote a business plan, quit my job, and thanked my wife, Amy, who cut me the first check.”

And OOTify was born.

A key connection happened when Amy Sharma, Ravi’s wife and OOTify co-founder, introduced her longtime colleague and creative ad guru Michael Quinones to the mission.

“When Ravi told me he left his job to change the stigma around mental health and build a technology platform that’s going to connect people to mental health professionals... that definitely sparked my interest,” Michael said.

Having grown up in a family of divorce, Michael was more than familiar with the ways in which mental health issues can have on already stressful family environments.

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“Bipolar [disorder] played a huge role in my family,” he said. “It was definitely a challenge and played a significant role in my family life as a young person. Even just dealing with the issues around divorce when you’re in middle school and you don’t really talk about it with anybody...you feel alone. But more people can relate than we might think. It’s just difficult to talk about.”

And that’s why bringing a new perspective to mental health is crucial. “Everybody has problems at work or with relationship issues,” said Michael. “That doesn’t mean you're automatically diagnosed with something. It just means you're a human being and you should be able to talk to somebody.”

Mental health is immediately associated with all this additional baggage, according to Michael. “But we need to be able to talk about it without the fear of that baggage.”

Nevertheless, feeling like shit even momentarily should be enough for anyone to start looking for answers to their problems.

And while more and more people are opening up to therapy, many still find it hard to admit to anyone that they’re not feeling their best. People are struggling with similar thoughts, fears, anxieties, but for whatever reason, are choosing to experience these feelings alone.

From their many interactions during the process of developing OOTify, both Ravi and Michael have identified and sought to tackle another problem: Men and their vulnerability.

“You’re raised to be tough and have this ingrained mentality from a young age and there are times that you need to be tough, because life is hard,” Michael said. “But we also need to simultaneously educate our young men and let them know there are times that you don't have to be.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is recognizing that there is help available to begin with. You can truly see improvement in your mental health and general sense of happiness, just by taking the initiative to seek that help.

Mental health issues are not partial to one type of person, or group of people. It’s a constant balancing act that requires confrontation on a day-to-day basis. And sometimes we lose those battles but at least we’re fighting the good fight.

“Some days are good and some days are bad. And just because you’ve struggled with your mental health, doesn’t mean that you can’t thrive in your life,” said Michael.

While there are many apps that offer help to people who are struggling, everyone agreed that ultimately people are longing for relationships, intimacy, and human connection. Teletherapy is a growing trend in the mental healthcare space as providers and users are looking for new ways to connect.

We don't need more obstacles. We need convenient, efficient and professional help. Luckily technology is opening the doors for that to happen.

Given everything we know, this is far greater than a mental health industry issue. It’s a cultural issue, and it cannot be escaped, and it’s time for a shift.

Speaking to OOTify’s founders made it clear how important it is for our generation to change the conversation in mental health.

We are witnessing the generation that will make the change. What we need to do is actually quite simple.

“We need to foster an environment for future generations where we're just not asking our kids about their physical health” Ravi added. “We need to also ask them questions like ‘how’s your mental health today?’ or ‘are you getting bullied at school?’ Those should be weekly questions.”


If you’re ever in a crisis or emergency call please call the appropriate services to get help. You can text “OOT” to 741741
to connect with a Crisis Counselor immediately.