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How to Create a Unique Mental Health Practice By Following Your Passions

By Leila Ghaznavi

Dr. Shannon McHugh and Dr. Jesi Sasaki are licensed psychologists in California who aim to modernize the way traditional mental healthcare is viewed. Their innovative approach focuses on prevention, brain development, the mind-body connection, and team sports concepts. Two years ago, frustrated by the constraints of the traditional practice model, Dr. McHugh and Dr. Sasaki started their own practice, Learn and Burn, and have been blazing a new path in therapy and business alike. I recently sat down with Dr. McHugh and Dr. Sasaki to discuss the challenges of starting a group practice and the tools they’ve used to build their practice. 

Could you tell me a bit about yourselves, including how you met and what started your partnership?

Shannon:  Jesi and I are licensed psychologists with a developmental psychology background, focused on helping kids with social and emotional issues. We met at a group practice that worked with families and children. While we were there, we realized that we wanted to create an education program about mental health skills that would teach kids in a fun and interactive way. So we developed this program that involves giving an educational platform to mental health fields by using physical activity and games to engage children. 

But as we were working on getting this program piloted in schools, COVID happened, and there were no schools and there was no program. Luckily, we had a networking connection with an attorney for NFL players that focuses on helping players who are experiencing mental health issues as they transition into retirement. We started working with these players to pass the time when we weren’t seeing paid clients. We both fell in love with that population for a reason that I think is very similar to the children we worked with. These guys craved knowledge and information about why they were feeling the way that they did. They just didn't have any education about mental health, which is exactly what we realized kids needed as well. It was an adult representation of what happens if you don't get this education. 

So we developed a group therapy program that turned into a mental wellness program for athletes who are transitioning out of their sports. We utilized the same set of principles that we had with the child program—education on mental health skills—while also giving them a safe space to connect and get support from peers. To sum it all up, we are program developers at heart who have this specialty in working with very specific populations. 

You have such a unique therapy model. How do you educate people about the work that you do?

Shannon: A lot of it has been networking and explaining our work to people who engage with the populations that we serve. Most recently, we found out through that attorney I mentioned that there's another therapist who works with players here in California. We met with her and she exclaimed, “Oh, I have all these guys that are going to be interested in this!” It was a revelation. Why hadn’t we thought about reaching out to other therapists or other support systems? Networking and making sure we're on the right lists is a big part of it.

The other element is marketing. Recently, we had this photoshoot with a bunch of athletes because we're getting our website redone. And we're trying to be more active on social media. This year is all about trying to figure out how to scale the marketing. 

Jesi: I will chime in here. I think we are great at making mental health not intimidating. When we're in groups with NFL players, they're intimidated by mental health and doctors in general. But our personality and our style really helps them to open up because we are transparent, fun, and just ourselves. We modernize therapy to make it fun and sexy. I think that's the biggest key to getting people to bridge that gap between where they're at and mental health services.

Going to grad school, it was always emphasized to be this blank slate, be very professional, be very serious. And in the beginning, I overcompensated because I look very young. I thought I had to be very serious in order for people to take me seriously. But once I started to get more confident and comfortable in my style, which is fun and engaging, that’s when I started doing my best work. 

I think partnering with Shannon helped bring that side out of me and helped me realize that you can be professional without being this super-stuffy, serious, sterile doctor that we have been ingrained to think is the path for psychologists. 

When talking about marketing, what has given you an edge?

Jesi: I think it’s optics. We are young, modern psychologists who like to be in the know of what's working marketing wise, content wise, and social media wise. If I'm looking for a therapist I'm going to go to their website. Does the website look appealing? As superficial as that may sound, we know that is part of marketing and part of running a business. The way that Shannon and I present ourselves and our work has an appeal factor. We had no graphic design or advertising experience. You have to acknowledge and accept that learning these things is part of running a business, and when you are the business, that means putting yourself out there in a way that's going to attract the audience that you want. 

Shannon: As mental health professionals, we've been told that we aren't supposed to do that. If you look up anybody who's in-network in mental health service, 60% of them don't have websites. Of the other 40%, maybe 30% of those people have websites that look terrible. It’s wild to me that this is
not something that is discussed in grad school. God forbid you're sharing something of yourself with people when they're sharing everything with you. 

How do you find that balance between being both personable and professional?

Shannon: First thing is to always assess the client. For example, football players are thinking, How on earth am I gonna relate to this lady on the screen? So I will talk about my history as an athlete, the athlete mentality, etc. And that slowly opens things up. My purpose for doing that is not to brag about my accomplishments, but to try and reduce a client’s nervousness. I think that is the perspective that keeps it from being unprofessional. 

Since you practice a non-traditional model of therapy, have insurance companies not recognized the work that you're doing? 

Shannon: Mental health insurance has always been a barrier for us. There is very little that mental health insurance will cover. And what they do cover is not nearly enough. So we don't utilize insurance companies much. We have a very small portion that we use insurance with – our pro bono clients. A lot of the work that we're doing right now for the NFL community, and even for our child education communities, is free work. We use our family work, which is paid clients, to supplement these other passions. Which is unfortunate, because research shows that being able to combine physical health, emotional health, and mental health skills education is what people need—and insurance companies are not covering that. 

Jesi: We've had to split our business in half. One half is therapy, where we provide superbills and are using CPT codes. We're doing evidence-based treatments, but the way we intervene is a bit more non-traditional. For the other half, we have the NFL players, which is a coaching/consulting business because insurance doesn't recognize what we do. 

Where do you want to see your practice go next? 

Shannon: There's a time and place for therapy that is CPT codes and all of those things. We will always have a passion for working with individual clients, but having an entire caseload of 40 or 50 clients can lead to burnout. What we want to do is more educational in nature and less focused on the actual interventions and treatments. The only way that we can do that is through a coaching, educational, or advocacy strategy. 

Jesi: We're basically the “on demand whatevers.” Whatever idea someone has? We can do that. We can serve that population. We can serve that need. We really love coming up with ideas, creating something, then seeing it grow. So you can ask us again in a year when we’ll be doing something totally different with all of our passion. 

How can Nirvana help support you?

Jesi: For me, it's nice to have a service that I'm able to give back to my clients and feel that I'm helping them when they're giving me their money. But I also think having the community is great, because we get to hear what other therapists are doing. Plus, the help making introductions so we can share our passions with other people has helped our business to expand. 

Shannon: Nirvana reduces the red tape that comes with insurance companies. When you talk about a superbill in an email, or on the phone, you can almost hear this exasperated sigh of “Now I am gonna have to print out my claims, and I'm gonna have to do this and that.” Being able to tell parents, “I'm going to help take care of your kid but I'm also going to help you have one less stress.” That’s been amazing and Nirvana really helps us with that. 

Jesi: Personally, I felt more comfortable upping my fees, which is something I would have never done. Before, I felt so guilty asking clients for this much money. I know that I'm worth it, but it's still a very hard conversation. But now I can cushion it with: “This is my fee and I have a third party company that can help with the superbills. You literally don't have to do anything except watch checks come in.” That makes me feel that I can charge what I'm worth without feeling guilty about my fees.

Having gone through this experience of building your own practice, what advice do you wish someone had given you?

Jesi: Do it sooner. Get a support system that believes in you, and trusts you, because once you rip the band aid off it's not going to be smooth sailing. But as long as you anticipate that and are willing to see it through–it's worth it. Doing it sooner rather than later would be the one thing I would tell myself. 

Shannon: It's easier said than done, right? You’re surrounded by people who've been doing this for 20 - 30 years and everyone says, “Oh my gosh, private practice is so hard. You can't get clients. There are no referral sources.” When you're hearing that so much, it can be a barrier. 

My advice would be that if you're looking at the job that you currently have, and you're thinking that there are other things that can help elongate your career without burnout, then consider how you can get those needs met. I think that if you have something to offer that is unique and different and fully yourself, it'll work out. It did for us, and we're ready to change the world! 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.