Helping Kids Cope: Latina Founder Faces Growing Mental Health Crisis

In response to the growing mental health crisis among children, Maria Barrera founded Clayful in November 2021. This innovative platform offers on-demand, chat-based coaching for students to help them cope, filling a gap in mental health services.

By making schools pay for the service, all children have access to support even if their parents cannot afford it. Importantly, the research finds that schools are best suited to address students’ mental health challenges.

Clayful officially launched last November, in 20 school districts across 6 states and after raising over $7 million in venture capital. It is already providing mental health support to thousands of young people aged 8-18. The service is on-demand, so kids don’t have to remember appointments. It has also addressed the shortage of mental health professionals by training its own workforce.

Clayful is becoming a go-to resource for schools to address student psychological well-being.

From tears to triumph: Latina builds mental wellness platform for kids

When Barrera read that suicide rates among 8-year-olds were rising before the pandemic and accelerating during it, the article brought tears to her eyes. The pandemic posed unique challenges for children. Disturbed routines, decreased social interaction, and increased stress and uncertainty contributed to anxiety. Limited coping skills and disrupted education further increased the impact on children.

Working for a human resources platform at the time, Barrera knew mental health platforms were exploding during the pandemic, but none focused on helping kids cope. “I have to do something about it!” she exclaimed.

Barrera, a Colombian immigrant with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford in mechanical engineering and a focus in psychology, felt her extensive experience in edtech (she was Nearpods’ first employee in San Francisco and worked there for nearly six years) and her academic training uniquely qualified her to solve this great challenge.

Barrera quit his job in September 2021 to focus on his entrepreneurial idea. That November, he incorporated Clayful and officially began work on a platform focused on youth mental well-being in January 2022. He spoke with parents, children, teachers, psychologists and companies working extensively in this space.

“I started gathering all these data points,” Barrera said. What problems are other companies solving? Where is the white space? He sought advice once the data points began to coalesce into an idea for a company.

Early on, Barrera asked investors he knew had a bird’s-eye view of innovation in the mental health or startup space and helped iterate on the idea. Investors such as Reach Capital and OVO Fund sought comment.

Inclusion and accessibility were central to Barrera. He believed that a platform that addresses the emotional health of young people should be free and available in many languages.

In July 2023, Barrera received a $150,000 grant and ongoing support from the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund. In November 2023, Reach Capital led a $7 million seed round with participation from Ovo Fund, as the saying goes, “If you want money, ask for advice.” Common Sense Ventures, Charter School Growth Fund, Wisdom Ventures and Katz Amsterdam Foundation also joined the round.

Clayful officially launched in November 2023, as a free, on-demand, chat-based service available in 133 languages ​​for students ages 8-18.

Focusing on students leads to on-demand psychological coaching

Barrera believed that schools are the gateways to children’s mental health services. If schools provided the service, it would be free. However, school counselors often lack the time and resources to effectively support the growing number of students in need. “It was a big bet for me to say schools are going to care about this,” he said.

Working with schools would also have other benefits, he believed. Integrating mental health education services through the school can reduce stigma, increase accessibility, and build trust with students. Early intervention can prevent crises and equip students with coping skills for long-term success. This support creates a positive school culture that improves student attendance, behavior, academic achievement and engagement. This holistic approach promotes supportive learning environments and positive student well-being outcomes.

In the spring of 2022, Barrera began piloting the Clayful platform. The startup uses user-centered design, an iterative design process that focuses on understanding the needs, preferences, and behaviors of end users throughout the design and development of a product or service. It involves gathering insights from users through research methods such as interviews, observations, and usability testing, and then using that insight to inform design decisions.

Feedback from this research exposed a major problem. Children don’t use calendars to run their lives. They arrived late or not at all because they had forgotten. “This prompted us to rethink the point of entry,” sighed Barrera. “We changed on demand.”

[Difficult] feelings don’t have a calendar,” Barrera said. If you had a fight with your best friend, are being bullied, or are freaking out about a test, you need support right now. Now, young people text Clayful, and within 60 seconds, one of 100 coaches responds in one of 133 languages.

The relationship is not with a specific coach. It is anonymous. But regardless of who your coaches are, they know if you’ve sought support before and what it was about, and they check the previous situation.

Since the first pilot, schools have been paying for the service. Clayful’s first pilot had a budget of $1 million for eight counselors. The school was only able to recruit one. There is a shortage of mental health professionals!

Clayful created a new layer in the workforce to fill the gap between those in need of mental health support and the availability of professionals. Coaches may be former educators or counselors without a master’s degree in school psychology. They work part-time and the company offers rigorous training.

The work is preventive: imagine the transformation if instead of waiting for (emotional) fires to get so big you have to call the fire department, each student walked around with their own fire extinguisher and could put out small fires as they arise.

We wanted to find something that we could have available to all kids, said Charlie Wynne, the coordination and compliance officer for Plainwell Community Schools in Michigan. We knew that if we just hired another counselor or something, we wouldn’t be able to be one-on-one with every student.

Sophomore Mallory DeYoung has used the Clayful app several times. “I felt like they listened to me and understood what I was going through.”

“I know this reaches a segment of kids who might not have access to mental health services, or a coach or a mentor,” Wynne said.

How do you use user-centered design to improve your product or service?

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