Practice mindfulness. I haven’t yet found my way with meditation, but I do try to practice mindful cooking — I block off time to cook and unwind. I find cooking is a great way to engage in something productive that also lets me slow down and relax.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Harry Ritter M.D., J.D.
Harry is the founder and CEO of Alma, a co-practicing community for mental health care providers. Harry founded Alma to simplify and elevate the therapy experience. Alma is pioneering a new mental health care model that brings together top therapists into co-practicing communities powered by shared technology and services. Members hail from an array of disciplines and areas of clinical focus to offer a more holistic approach to mental health care. Alma’s flagship space opened in midtown Manhattan in 2018, with plans for expansion. Prior to Alma, Harry was VP of Delivery Care at Oscar Health.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I come from a family of doctors. I’m a doctor, my parents are doctors, and my grandfather was a doctor. Coming out of medical school, my concept of health and wellness began and ended with doctors and primary care. Today, I look at my life, and the professionals who have played an important role in making me who I am, and as much as I love my primary care provider, I attribute much of who I am today to the therapy community.
When I was going through a rough time with my family, it’s my therapist who guided me through it. When I needed to be a better boss, or manage the transition to parenthood with the arrival of my children, it’s my therapist who connected me to providers in related disciplines. These experiences completely expanded my idea of what makes up someone’s well-being. I personally came to understand that mental health is part of our whole health, and became very passionate about the impact of that experience.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
There has been exciting momentum in recent years in terms of de-stigmatizing mental health. Influential leaders across politics, business, and entertainment coming forward to share their stories openly and proudly have a huge impact on inspiring others to proactively prioritize their mental well-being and to support those who are.
That said, we still have a long way to go. First, the idea that “mental illness” means “crazy” is deeply embedded in our culture, which is both emphasized and reinforced by the media. Second, it’s human nature to fear what we don’t know or understand. Neuroscience and behavioral health are still areas we’re learning a lot about, and it’s next to impossible to have empathy for something you don’t know about or understand. Last but certainly not least, we exist in our own consciousness. Because of that, we feel like we should be able to control it, and it’s hard to embrace that sometimes, that’s not possible.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
We built Alma, a co-practice community with a flagship location in midtown Manhattan, to create space for people to find meaning and connection that they can bring back into their everyday lives. Everything about the design of our physical space, our technology experience, and the way we’ve brought our community together under one roof is in service of that goal. Whether you come to Alma to heal or to grow, we want you to feel rewarded for that decision, and that our community is here to support you by connecting you to the best possible providers in an environment designed for you.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Before Alma, I was at Oscar Heath in NYC. While there, I had the opportunity to build the Oscar Center, a 7,000 square foot primary care, mental health, and wellness space in Brooklyn. My first hire to the team was a behavioral health specialist who had experience working in primary care settings where mental health was built into the foundation. The hire was really meaningful to me because I believed the only way to do primary care today is with equal attention to the mind. As we got up and running, I saw just how important this was — she always had the longest waitlist and the hardest time finding therapists for referring clients outside of the Center.
I fell in love with the community of therapists I met through Oscar and wanted to find a way to empower them to deliver great care to more people in ways that were convenient, impactful, and thoughtfully-designed. I started asking what therapists needed to be successful and felt that the experience I had building tech-enabled experiences at Oscar could have an enormous impact on therapy as well.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
For individuals, if you have not experienced mental illness, begin to educate yourself so that you can start to separate the illness from the person. Illness shouldn’t be considered a part of a person’s identity; instead, it’s something someone is experiencing and needs your support and understanding through that experience. If you have struggled, as so many of us have, be brave — tell your story. The more we can go beyond talking about going to the therapist and finding the courage to share why you’re there will help educate those around you and reinforce safe spaces for sharing.
Culturally, we have to move beyond the outdated (by time, and by science) idea that our health is a purely physical experience. Our whole health includes our bodies and our mind. Whatever your thoughts on how broad the wellness trend has become, it can be a helpful gateway to a world where people proactively prioritize their mental well-being alongside the physical and begin to understand the link between the two through personal experience.
Structurally, initiatives like Thrive NYC, the city’s campaign to promote mental health in New York, go a long way, and we’re proud to be an official partner supporting Thrive in the Workplace. That said, we need to see more from the city, state, and federal government to promote mental health parity regulations making access to mental health services more widely available, and we need to see our political leaders advocating more strongly for mental health resources.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Therapy! And not just when I’m experiencing a challenge. I think preventative therapy is a valuable way for me to build resilience, learn more about myself, and grow personally.
- Take care of my body. At Alma, we embrace a whole-person approach to mental well-being and I try to take that to heart — I work out twice a week and try to find group classes that keep me motivated.
- Stretching. Each morning I take a few minutes to stretch. I find that really helps me to release the tension and better prepare for the day.
- Practice mindfulness. I haven’t yet found my way with meditation, but I do try to practice mindful cooking — I block off time to cook and unwind. I find cooking is a great way to engage in something productive that also lets me slow down and relax.
- Shabbat. My phone is off Friday evenings through Saturday evenings and we don’t use any electronics or media that day. This is a day dedicated exclusively to me, my family, and my loved ones, and I make it an inviolable part of my week.
- Reading. We keep phones and TVs out of our bedroom and use time in the evenings for reading.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
· Esther Perel’s podcast, Where Should We Begin?
· Dr. Molly Millwood’s new book on modern motherhood. We recently hosted her at Alma for a fireside chat.
· Alma member Owen Muir’s new podcast, Self-Disclosure, where mental health practitioners share about their own struggles with mental illness.