Unleashing the Power of Storytelling in Mental Health: An Interview with Katherine Grill, Ph.D.

Allyson Plosko, Director, Telosity, Vinaj

While stress and mental illness on college campuses has been on the rise for the last decade, the impact of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health has pushed this issue to the forefront. In a survey conducted by Active Minds, 87% of college student respondents reported feeling stress or anxiety during the pandemic. The dramatic increase in need is forcing college administrators to rethink the mental health and stress support they provide to students, looking to external partners and digital tools to augment their college’s counseling center.

Katherine Grill, Ph.D., CEO of Neolth, is well-suited to help colleges in this endeavor. She has a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, worked at a pediatric hospital with teens and young adults, and spent years 6 teaching at university. She knows firsthand the challenges students face in receiving support and the lens counselors and college administrators must have in filling this gap. We sat down with her to learn about how her company, Neolth, is equipping colleges to better meet the mental health needs of their student body.

Vinaj: What is Neolth? Can you talk about the motivation behind starting it?

Dr. Grill: When I was in school, there was no mental health or stress support for students. I became interested in psychology as a means to help students struggling with academic and social pressures. In college, I studied therapy and neuroscience. I spent some time conducting patient care, clinical research and community-based health programs. I loved creating impact in my community through health program creation and implementation but felt the in-person work I was doing had limitations. I wanted more youth to have access to mental health care via a digital platform, so I started Neolth.

Neolth provides stress and mental health support to students by delivering on-demand, personalized care via our self-guided platform. Neolth helps students when they are overwhelmed by providing access to personalized relaxation practices created by doctors and therapists. Students engage with our video library for expert advice. Here, they can explore topics like managing academic stress. Additionally, they can watch our student stories where peers talk candidly about their mental health to break down stigma. School counselors get to see the impact of our program by tracking students’ engagement, stress and health symptoms on our secure admin portal. Tested and approved by students, we built Neolth in partnership with nearly 200 Student Advisors and Ambassadors.

Vinaj: What’s a recent Neolth accomplishment or milestone you’re most proud of?

Dr. Grill: Neolth recently wrapped up our participation in the Headstream Accelerator; our team was very proud to be selected for this prestigious program. During the program, Headstream helped us increase our impact by emphasizing youth-oriented product design and inclusivity. In partnership with our youth advisors, Neolth designed a new community module that is launching this spring.

Vinaj: What is the common misconception people have about teen and young adult mental wellbeing?

Dr. Grill: A major misconception I’ve seen is that youth wellbeing is the same as adult wellbeing. These are some of the key differences in youth’s mental health needs and the way they engage in digital programs:

  • Neurobiological differences: One important distinction is understanding the developmental age of youth. We know from the neurobiology that youths’ capacity for emotional regulation and resilience is generally lower, so they need more support cultivating those skills.
  • Digital engagement: Youth are digital natives and like to digest content differently. The typical psycho-education content presented in Coursera-style modules does not work well with youth. They’re used to YouTube and TikTok and want short digestible, attention-grabbing content.
  • Stage of their mental health journey: Lastly, you also need to consider where youth are on their mental health journey. The majority of mental health conditions are developed during the adolescent and young adult period. Adults who are seeking mental health care may already have a diagnosis, a medication routine, and know to an extent how to manage their condition. Youth who are experiencing mental health symptoms for the first time often don’t have a diagnosis or treatment plan, they don’t know where to start. They also have a different source of stressors, like academic stress, first breakups, social media pressure, etc. that they want help managing. Understanding all of this is key to developing an effective youth mental health program.

Vinaj: What trends are you most excited about in the mental wellness space?

Dr. Grill: One trend I’m especially excited about is storytelling. Storytelling has been used in business for decades, but not in regards to mental health. Through working with youth, we’ve realized how impactful peer storytelling about lived experiences can be in breaking down stigma. We’re building a new community section on Neolth – launching this spring – which will include an entire Student Stories section. We’ve even established an Advocacy and Content Creator internship this summer, to expand on our storytelling video series. I can’t wait to see how the students respond. Here’s a clip from one of our Student Stories: https://youtu.be/NK-IHKKvWOA

Running a startup is a highly stress job. To wrap up our discussion, I asked Dr. Grill about the mental wellness habits she has developed to manage stress. Her top ones? Sleep and self-compassion. A reminder we could all probably use a little more of both.

Katherine Grill, Ph.D., CEO of Neolth

Dr. Katherine Grill is the co-founder and CEO of Neolth, which provides stress and mental health support to students by delivering on-demand, personalized care via their self-guided platform. Dr. Grill has a BS in Art Therapy, MA in Biological Psychology and PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience. Previously, she conducted NIH behavioral research at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC and co-founded a community-based health program for young adults. In 2017 she moved to San Francisco to explore the life-changing impact technology has on healthcare delivery.

Telosity is a Vinaj fund focused on investing in Pre-seed and Seed-stage companies improving mental wellbeing for 10 to 24 years old. Learn more at Telosity.co.