Josh Liss, left, and Tyler Fisher, two alumni of Half Hollow...

Josh Liss, left, and Tyler Fisher, two alumni of Half Hollow Hills High School East, helped create an app designed in part to connect “traditionally unreachable” people with mental health specialists. Credit: For Counslr by Stephen Strutt

More than a decade after graduating from Half Hollow Hills High School East, two longtime friends are providing current district students access to an app that connects them with mental health specialists.

Josh Liss and Tyler Fisher, both 28, and Dix Hills natives, helped found Counslr in 2019 to connect people who would be “traditionally unreachable” with mental health support, they said.

Starting this year, Half Hollow Hills high school students can access Counslr through a pilot program allowing unlimited text sessions 24/7 with licensed professionals. App users, the company said, can access the service within moments of using the app or through a scheduled appointment.

Looking back on their own high school experiences, Fisher and Liss said they wish they had access to a similar service. They graduated in 2013.

What to know

  • Two Half Hollow Hills High School East graduates helped found an app aimed at connecting "traditionally unreachable” people with mental health specialists.
  • Half Hollow Hills high school students can access the app, Counslr, through a pilot program allowing unlimited text sessions 24/7 with licensed professionals.
  • School district officials said the app is critical to offering better access to mental health wellness for students.

Liss said that he dealt with anxiety and stress in part because of the nature of being in a competitive school district and job market.

“When you're growing up in such a fast-paced community where competition is so deeply embedded into the ways that we all engage day to day, it can be a bit overwhelming and stressful, to say the least,” he said.

Fisher, who now lives in the Albany area, said he recognized mental health issues among his family and friends while growing up.

“There were a lot of people around me always my entire life who I think really would have benefited from even just knowing that they had a recourse; that was something that I'll say is less significant than taking a big step to say I want to see a therapist,” he said.

Counslr is among a growing list of companies that are using the digital space to connect more people with mental health services that can often be stigmatized, too expensive, or otherwise difficult to access, experts say.

There are “just so many people today, especially younger people, but really people of all ages, who are not comfortable engaging face-to-face about mental health related issues that utilizing counselor allows them to open up about,” said Liss, who now lives in New York City. 

Svetlana Levak, director of product development at Northwell Health, said that digital health apps premise themselves on providing access. But, she said, apps can sometimes face the same challenges as in-person providers, such as long wait times to see an in-person provider.

Still, she said apps can be a good way for someone who might not be ready for intensive treatment or unable to afford other services.

“Start there and see kind of if it provides you the help that you need,” said Levak, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. If that doesn't work, she said, a user should move to a validated institution that provides evidence-based treatment.

Thus far, the company has had more than 20,000 users, Liss said. He and Fisher were able to seed the endeavor by raising funds from individual investors, though they did not disclose the amount.

Other clients that the company has worked with include the Center Moriches School District, Molloy University, and the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

To be part of the service, an organization pays a per-person monthly fee. For instance, the Half Hollow Hills Central School District spent $2.75 for each person per month, the district said. The district said that it offers the service to nearly 2,450 high school students. 

“It is crucial to support mental wellness in young people and we are pleased to provide Counslr as another avenue.” Dr. Jeffery Woodberry, assistant superintendent for districtwide administration in Half Hollow Hills, said in a statement.

In the next five to 10 years, Fisher and Liss hope to continue to help people take control of their mental health.

“Frankly,” Liss said, “we want to keep making good on our promise.”

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