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Schools enlist chat-based startup to help students address stress

A standard school crossing sign outside in a Seattle neigborhood features a depiction of two students in a pentagon.
Emil Moffatt
Schools across the country need more mental health counselors, but they're not always available. The startup Clayful, aims to connect students with mental health coaches via text message.

In her every-other-week private counseling appointments with teenagers, Seattle-based therapist Emily Irwin will often ask "what's on your heart? What's on your brain?"

"And they'll be like.... ‘uh, I forget, I forget what happened,’” Irwin recounted.

These stresses start to stack up between appointments, Irwin said, and it can take a toll on a student's mental health. But in her other role as a coach on the mental health platform Clayful, Irwin can respond to texts from students right away.

"Then you have real-time access to support in the moment of having, maybe heightened emotions or a difficulty,” Irwin said.

More than a dozen schools in Washington state have begun offering Clayful. It lets students send a text message to a mental health coach and receive a quick response.

Federal Way Public Schools, for example, is gearing the platform toward middle school students as they prepare for high school. It comes as schools across the country have had trouble finding enough mental health professionals to go around.

Irwin said the lingering impacts from the pandemic seem to amplifying the depression and anxiety that have always been a part of teenagers’ lives. She's also has seen an increasing number of teens concerned with gender diversity issues and the prevalence of gun violence in schools.

Clayful isn’t meant to replace traditional counseling sessions, but supplement them. Irwin said a back-and-forth via text, can help start a conversation.

"When you ask for help and get support you're gonna be more likely to ask for help again,” said Irwin. “So then where is that kid asking for help later? The school counselor? A teacher? A parent? It just creates openness."

Clayful, a startup based in Florida, was founded by Maria Barrera. After she read about suicide rates among children, she was determined to do something to turn young people's obsession with their phones, into a positive.

"This generation is primarily communicating through their phones,” Barrera said. “Even though, yes, there's so many negative things that come from that, we can teach them that it's a tool for health as well."

Clayful said its coaches are vigorously screened and parents can opt-out if they don't want their children participating.

Help through Clayful is available in dozens of languages and Barrera said 60% of its coaches are BIPOC. Barrera, who was born in Colombia and moved to the U.S. when she was 10, said that shared connection can come through – even if the chat is anonymous.

"There's something about having gone through those experiences or seeing that as you were growing up that does deepen that connection,” said Barrera.

Barrera has a lofty goal for the platform – to make it accessible to every student in the U.S.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at