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Creating a Community

Season 1: Episode 24


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Business owners have enormous responsibilities and often have to navigate challenging situations. When it comes to addiction and mental health counseling, the responsibilities go far beyond day-to-day business. Dr. Church founded Wholeview Wellness to fill a need in the therapeutic community. Hear from Dr. Church on her customer-first approach and from Yelp reviewer Glori M. about her 5-star experience.

On the Yelp Blog: Learn more from Dr. Church about how to become a reliable, community-focused business in any industry.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it. This week we have a really special episode for me personally. This episode features a review for a counseling, mental health, and addiction treatment business in New York City called Wholeview Wellness. May is Mental Health Awareness month, so it seems fitting, but also in my personal life I work as a mental health advocate. In the fall of 2018 I had a manic episode and was hospitalized. I spent a week in a mental health hospital and then spent nearly eight weeks at IOP, Intensive Outpatient Program, which is another word for full time therapy Monday through Friday. For me, it was from 8a.m.-4p.m. I received a bipolar disorder diagnosis and spent three months taking the time to learn about my brain, my mental health, and the things I could do to find balance and a healthy lifestyle. My experience and extreme situation woke me up to the fact that all of us have mental health to be aware of and deal with. Diagnosis or not, if you have a brain, you need to be considering and caring for your mental health. This past year has been hard for so many people in so many different ways, but it’s been emotionally draining and mentally stressful for everyone, hands down. Taking the steps to get help, to learn more about how you’re feeling and what you can do to have better mental wellness is important. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. I hope you enjoy this episode, and I know you’ll learn a thing or two to help your business as well!

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

GLORI:  They respond to the emails really quickly. They send reminders of the groups or the individual session. That’s always really on point, which now that I think about it, that is something that I might take for granted because maybe there are places that never reply or that certainly doesn’t work all the time.

This might sound weird, but I was a little bit nervous because I’m Hispanic. I come from Venezuela, and she’s like a white lady. At first I was “Oh man, I don’t know,” I just didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s really helpful now that I’m thinking about it, that the first session is just questions. And I already have to share a lot about very personal stuff. I think doing that, I told her mostly everything that was very personal. I think it’s her whole demeanor. She’s very nice and calm. She just inspires trust.

EMILY: That’s Glori, a student at Columbia University in New York City. During her first semester, she found out about Wholeview Wellness through the school’s counseling services. As someone who’s struggled with anxiety for a long time, Glori was looking for support to manage it, and found Wholeview Wellness, a boutique addiction treatment center that helps with other areas of mental health as well. Let’s hear Glori’s review.

GLORI: Since I started seeing Dr. Church over a year ago my life has changed for the better. I am more aware of where my issues with interpersonal relationships and anxiety come from. With that awareness and the many skills I’ve learned through one-on-one sessions and DBT groups with Dr. Barris, I can now speak up, define what my needs are, assert myself, and deal with PTSD symptoms in a healthy way. At first, it took me a few sessions to fully disclose everything I was dealing with, but soon enough I became more and more comfortable. At Wholeview I feel safe knowing I am heard by an incredibly compassionate and professional team.

I miss going to their beautiful and conveniently located office and seeing everyone in person, but the transition to remote therapy has been seamless. I highly recommend Wholeview to anyone looking to work on their mental health with a compassionate and research-based approach.

EMILY: Wholeview Wellness is unique in many ways, in particular is the combination of one on one treatment, like Glori’s sessions with her doctor, Dr. Church, but also group sessions using DBT, dialectical behavior therapy. This is a type of evidence based psychotherapy that can be useful in treating mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and for change in behavioral patterns such as self-harm, substance abuse, or addiction. Glori also mentioned that in the beginning she was nervous! This is very normal when you’re trying anything new. But especially something like therapy or mental health treatment. I remember feeling nervous when I started therapy. Sometimes I’m still nervous for my monthly sessions! But I always go. And I find great value in them. But this isn’t about me … let’s hear more about how Wholeview started out. Here’s Dr. Sarah Church.

DR. CHURCH: Wholeview Wellness was the culmination of many different aspects of my career. So I started my career in research. I did research at Yale. I did my pre-doctoral internship there and fell in love with treating addiction while I was there. They were doing really high quality research and treatment for people who are struggling with alcohol and drug use. And I just loved it. So I stayed on a year after I finished my pre-doctoral internship. I did research there, but not long after that, I really wanted to get back to New York, which was where all my friends were and my now husband was, so my mentor from Yale called up her mentor from Columbia, and they had a position open at the medical school at Columbia. I took that job and did research there in developing treatments for addiction for four years.

I got the opportunity to be on the leadership team of the division of substance abuse at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I had to say, “Ok, I can bring these really high quality evidence-based practices to a large student population.” We have 3000 patients. And so I did that for about 12 years. I ran the division of substance abuse. I liked it a lot, but I found that I really wanted more freedom in hiring really high quality therapists and doing really nuanced psychotherapy for people with addiction.

Along the way, I met a group of private equity folks who were looking to invest in addiction treatment, and I did some work for them, doing diligence and looking at a bunch of different programs. And we never really found one that they liked. I did that for them for many years. And eventually they said to me, what type of treatment program would you want us to buy? So I put together a plan for what I thought would be ideal treatment for patients, they loved it, and they funded me to do it. And that’s how Wholeview started.

I called up several psychologists who I’d known throughout the years, who I really valued, trusted, and liked and told them what we were doing and what I was planning. And they all agreed to come. That was my initial group of staff. For the last few years, we’ve been doing really high quality nuance psychotherapy for people who are struggling with alcohol and drug use. As a team, we do individual, we do group, we do family, and we do couples counseling.

It’s been a lot of fun. It’s really been like the joy of my life to start this program.

EMILY: Dr. Church has experience and knowledge, but she also was dedicated to finding the right avenue for her skills. And she knew what she was good at. How she could help people directly. Which is how she started her practice. And how many of you started your business. You know what you’re good at and you know what your customers need.

Wholeview not only strives to use rigorous research to build the most effective treatment plans for patients but also builds an environment without any of the stigma that typically surrounds addiction and substance abuse. They want clients to feel welcome, no matter what they’ve gone through. Wholeview is a safe space for them.

DR.CHURCH: I forget that there’s stigma around addiction because within our program, we don’t think of it that way. It’s just something people are working on, something people are talking about. We really created Wholeview because we wanted it to be fun for people to explore their lives and to understand better what’s going on for them and to try to improve on their lives. When someone is using and they’ve slipped or they’ve relapsed, we really focus not about the slip of the relapse, but what can we learn from this situation? This is an opportunity for us to really in the moment realize what happened here? How did this occur? What can we learn from this? So, using it all as a learning opportunity to learn more about this person’s internal world and how they function in the world, whether that’s working or not working for them.

The way we reduce stigma is by creating a community where people can talk really openly and honestly about what they’re using and not using.

EMILY: Creating a sense of community through both the programs and the physical space that Glori misses going to is important. And helps patients feel connected to the practice, their treatment, and the other clients.

DR. CHURCH: When I envisioned Wholeview, I really wanted it to be a warm and welcoming space for people because IOP is an all day affair. Typically in person, people will go to a group from 10:30 a.m. to noon. They have about half an hour for lunch, then from 12:30-2 p.m. they’re in group again, and then they may have individual and family and other things. When we’re in person, people would come a little early, they’d have coffee, and they’d hang.

So we built Wholeview out from a blank slate. We had the landlords build the space out and I wanted to have a really nice waiting area. We have a little kitchenette area that we encourage patients, they can go in, and they can get their own coffee. We just wanted people to be able to hang out and form a community.  They would go out. There’s a lot of little shops in Midtown. We’re at 41st and Lexington, right by grand central, so people go out and grab lunch and then come back and sit in the waiting area and join together for lunch. And then again, after the program was over, they might hang out for a while and have a cup of coffee. So, it was a nice community building part of the program.

EMILY: Dr. Church mentioned IOP, which is an Intensive Outpatient Program, or daily therapy.  Patients take breaks in between sessions, which really heightens the importance of the office and gathering space. The Wholeview team wants patients to feel welcome and comfortable when they arrive, and they also want them to remain comfortable throughout the day. Let’s hear Dr. Church walk us through the range of services and types of patients at Wholeview.

DR. CHURCH: At Wholeview, we provide a range of services. Usually, when someone comes in, we do an evaluation. We spend about two hours with them, getting to know them, figuring out what’s going on for them in every aspect of their life.

And then we put together a treatment plan and that could be anything from once a week psychotherapy to every day, coming from 10:30a.m.-2p.m. for what we call intensive outpatient services. That’s a lot of group therapy. Oftentimes, there are people who are coming from inpatient, like rehab or detox whose lives have been really disrupted by their substance use.

They come and we’re a step down where they can come every day from Monday to Saturday, we have a Saturday group too. And they get support from our staff and they learn skills and strategies for how to stay in recovery. Or it can also be someone who’s really struggling, but doesn’t want to go inpatient. They might be able to come to us to get a lot of support on an outpatient basis, so they don’t have to end up in an inpatient. So they come both ways.

And then there’s also a whole group of people who are just wondering about their substance use. “Am I drinking too much? Or is this marijuana causing a problem for me? I’m not really sure. I want to sort that through. I want to talk to somebody about it.” It’s not gonna be judgemental, there’s not going to be any kind of stigma to their substance use. We have a lot of patients like that who come once a week and may or may not decide to stop using. They may decide to try to reduce or moderate over time, or they may decide to stop depending on what’s going on. So we will look at that in a nuanced way with them.

EMILY: Let’s talk about Wholeview’s seamless transition to virtual treatment during the pandemic.

DR. CHURCH: In March of 2020, we saw the tsunami of COVID heading our way, but we weren’t really sure what that was gonna look like. We had been thinking about doing tele-health for a year. We had been looking at different platforms and we had been gnashing their teeth and trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t work. We had looked at multiple things and then it happened, we knew this was happening. We had to go virtual. And we were like, “Ok, Zoom.” We’re just going to do Zoom. And it’s not that expensive. We’ll just do zoom for now, and we’ll figure it all out later. And literally overnight, we went virtual, and it was fantastic.

Our staff really stepped up to the plate and we learned really quickly. I think part of it was that because it was such a chaotic time for everybody, having the ritual of coming to the groups was actually really, really important for people initially, because people were isolated, they were in their homes.

There were no conflicts, so our attendance went way up. I think we went up more than 30% the first couple of months where people were just coming because they needed the support and they were frightened about what was going on in the world and they felt anxious and stressed. If people had trauma, that was getting kicked up and there was just a lot going on for people. So they came, but we also realized that we could check in with people. So, we would take attendance in group in the first minute or two, and if they weren’t there, we could reach out to them. We could text them, we could call them, or we could email them and say, “Hey, are you coming to the group?” And then we could get them to come. So we realized, it’s easy. There’s no traveling. There’s no commuting. With New York, those things are hard.

I think people found it very convenient. They could come, even though they were in their sweatpants, they weren’t wearing shoes, and all these things. It became a way for people to connect with one another pretty quickly. And it was pretty seamless.

EMILY: Going fully virtual also means communication is more crucial than ever. Patients don’t have the security or sense of importance as a client when they’re dialing in from their homes, but staying consistent and organized with things such as dial in information and appointment times ties right into the customer service and what Glori mentioned earlier about Wholeview and its prompt responsiveness.

DR. CHURCH: Right from the beginning, I knew that it was incredibly important that when people call, they get a person, that we pick up the phone, and on the weekends, I actually pick up the phone. That may not be forever, but we’re a young organization, we’ve only been around for two years, we’re a startup.

Initially when we started the business, it was just the two of us. Roger, who is my director of finance and operations and myself. So the two of us were a two-man band. We did everything together, but we always picked up the phone. We always talk to people when they call. Now, we have another person who’s our clinical coordinator who does most of the phonework. But again, it’s critical. And our whole staff knows that when patients call up, that we attend to their needs and help them in any way that they’re requesting.

EMILY: Responsiveness may seem like a no brainer when it comes to serving your customers, but you have to actually have the manpower to answer the phones, or respond to the messages, otherwise your potential client will move on and look for somebody else to serve their needs.

GLORI: Wholeview was the second place that I called. The first one never got back to me, and I was a little bit disappointed because I read a lot about the first one and kind of fell in love with them. But when I called Wholeview it was great because Roger, who answered the phone, was so kind from the beginning and followed up to make the appointment so that was nice.

EMILY: Having reliable lines of communication is a key part of building a strong foundation with patients. Yet, in order to create a safe space where they can open up, especially when the doctor and patients come from completely different backgrounds, it takes skills, sympathy, and more importantly, passion for helping patients.

DR. CHURCH: One of the ways is through hiring really passionate people who want to do this work. That’s really important to us. We don’t hire anybody who doesn’t want to specialize in addiction. All of my therapists are PhD level psychologists, so they all know how to treat anxiety, depression, chronic pain, trauma, relationship issues, and all those things that typically come along with substance use. But all of our passion is really in treating people with alcohol and substance use issues. I think when we start from that core belief and passion, then you can’t really go wrong, because we screened to make sure that everybody really holds that value to heart.

In terms of cultural differences, this is something we think about a lot and that we’ve been thinking about more and more over this past year because of everything that’s going on in our country. I think at the very base level, the way I try to approach it is with something called “a not knowing stance.” So I know that I don’t know everything about other people’s culture, but if I can approach that with a curiosity and a desire to learn more and to partner where they’re the expert in their culture, but maybe they could share that with me. I think that goes a long way to making people feel comfortable, just sharing their experiences. And then we learn about them together. It’s not so different from all the other things about people that I don’t know. I want to understand those things in a really detailed way as well about their jobs, their home life, their family, all of those things are not known to me to begin with. And I want to know that over time. Culture is another piece of that.

EMILY: Dr. Church finds ways to relate to her clients and learn about their personal experiences that may impact their mental health, addiction, or other things. No matter what industry you’re in, relating to your consumers will help your business. It creates a connection with them. Glori specifically said that she wishes her whole family could see Dr. Church. That love for the practice and confidence that it’s helped her is part of what motivates her to review.

GLORI: I tend to write reviews when I have very strong opinions, when I really like something, or I really really don’t like it. But no, it really helps. It helps new people discover places. I read a few reviews usually before going to a place. And I think it really helps a business of course, because other people see. It gives you a natural sense of security when trying something new, so that’s why I write reviews.

I have had an amazing experience with Wholeview. And since then, it doesn’t seem like therapy really. I started liking it so much. I become a preacher. I met a lot of people who will say, “Oh no, I tried therapy and I didn’t like it.” I just want people to know there are places that are really good, where you can find very compassionate and knowledgeable people that will help you out.

EMILY: Glori hits on so many of the reasons we’ve heard other reviewers share as to why they write reviews and why they think reviews are important. I want to acknowledge that reviews for a therapist or treatment facility are a completely different category of review, and a completely different business from many. One example would be patient privacy and how that impacts what Dr. Church and other medical providers can say in a review response. But there’s even more to it! Here’s Dr. Church sharing a bit of insight.

DR. CHURCH: I think the reviews are critical in addiction because of the stigma and the shame that comes along with having a family member or having an addiction yourself. Many people will not talk to anybody about it. They won’t talk to their doctor. They won’t talk to their siblings. They won’t talk to their parents. They don’t want to tell anybody. So, the way they find treatment is by going online and looking at reviews.

On one hand, in addiction, you really want to make sure that treatment is private, treatment is confidential, that people feel really comfortable coming in and they know they’re not going to be exposed in any way. But the flip side of that is we want to open up the conversation and talk about these things. These are things that so many people struggle with. More than 10% of the population has some kind of substance use disorder, alcohol or substance use. One out of 10 people is struggling in some way.

It’s something we need to talk more about, but where we are today is that people don’t tend to talk about it that much because of the fear of stigma and shame. So, the reviews are a place that people can go and read and find out if this is a place that other people have liked and trusted.

I feel mixed about them in some ways, but when patients feel strongly about it, sometimes they write them which is lovely and nice to see. It’s nice for our staff to see positive reviews. It’s something I’m coming to terms with.

EMILY: It’s always important to address issues or negative feedback whether it is expressed on Yelp or in person.

DR. CHURCH: There’s always issues that come up along the way where maybe they think there’s an issue with the billing or there’s an issue with something that happened. But for the most part, we have an internal working motto that we treat every patient like a rock star. Because we think that patients deserve to have that kind of care and that kind of consideration.

I’m very, very lucky to have incredible staff who really, really care about patients, and they want to resolve things. When we make a mistake, we apologize. And when we do things right, we hope that patients will notice that too. We’ve been, knock on wood, pretty lucky.

EMILY: To wrap us up, I wanted Dr. Church to share a closing thought for anyone out there who has maybe thought about getting help for themselves or a loved one.

DR. CHURCH: For anybody who’s considering treatment for substance abuse or mental health, I would highly recommend trying it. To know that there are a lot of therapies, there are a lot of treatments out there that are effective. I’m clearly biased, but I think that, if you’re thinking about it, it’s possible that your life could be better. And why not give yourself that gift?

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