Clinical psychologist Emily Brucia’s life philosophy could be summed up in one quote: “It’s perfectly OK to change your mind as you learn more.”
Brucia came across the quote — by Dr. Donald Redelmeier — while studying psychology at Whitman College, and it stuck with her.
And she would need the reminder. After graduating from Whitman in 2011 and pursuing advance degrees, Brucia had no interest in telemedicine or private practice. But as she worked toward her doctorate in clinical psychology at Palo Alto University, her thoughts shifted.
In April 2020, Brucia launched Elemental Telehealth — a health tech company focused on connecting people with psychologists in private practice who provide holistic, evidence-based care. The business was always designed to exist in the telehealth space, but launching it during a global pandemic was never her intention.
“The timing is a bit surreal, to say the least. I never could have imagined that we would have launched in the middle of a pandemic,” said Brucia, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in psychology. “I feel good about my prediction that telehealth was on the rise — but I couldn’t have anticipated how abruptly it was going to explode out of sheer necessity.”
A Lifelong Interest in the Human Condition
Brucia specializes in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has a special passion for working with those who are in helping professions, such as first-responders and medical providers. From a young age, her interest in the impact of traumatic experiences on mental health was piqued by her grandfather, a combat veteran who served in World War II.
“PTSD as a diagnosis didn’t even exist for the first 60 years of his life,” she said. “Growing up in the shadow of his wartime experience made me really curious about the intergenerational ripple effect of trauma.”
Her interest deepened as a middle schooler, after watching the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“I remember being so full of questions and feeling so dissatisfied with the responses,” she said. “I suppose my endless curiosity and desire to understand the human condition drove me right into the field of clinical psychology and led me to where I am today.”
At Whitman, Brucia dug more into those interests by being trained to provide peer support for sexual assault survivors. She also was a member of the Prison Research Group, led at the time by Sociology Professor Keith Farrington. During her summer breaks, she volunteered with a forensic mental health program in the Bay Area, where she gained experience working at the intersection of the mental health and the criminal justice systems.
“This was an eye-opening experience that fostered some of my early thinking about the impact of environmental and psychosocial stressors, particularly for marginalized groups, and the complex role that systems play in either maintaining the status quo or developing innovative approaches to health and well-being.”
Recognizing a Need
Brucia received her doctorate in 2018, and then went on to complete the Leadership Program in Integrative Healthcare at Duke University under the mentorship of Jeremy Petranka, assistant dean at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. It was there that the idea for Elemental really came into focus.
She would often hear from frustrated patients about the difficulty of connecting with a psychologist who is a good fit, especially given limitations in specialties, costs and location.
“The traditional methods of finding a psychologist are outdated and cumbersome. They can feel both disempowering and confusing for many,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘How can I create a platform that would facilitate ease of access to high quality care?’”
She wanted the process to be seamless and transparent, for both patients and clinicians.
“In addition to an obsession with high quality, evidence-based patient care, I wanted to also begin creating an innovative community for psychologists, so they can show up and do their best work,” Brucia said. “I think the company idea ultimately came together based on what I was identifying over and over again as space where the field is ripe for innovation.”
Elemental Telehealth launched in the Bay Area, California with three psychologists, including Brucia, and has since grown. She plans to continue expanding their clinical services and developing new technology to facilitate a positive experience for patients and psychologists. In addition, Brucia is committed to recruiting and retaining diverse psychologists, as well as identifying and implementing ways to serve under-resourced groups. She is also partnering with the Disaster Responder Assets Network (DRAN), which offers crisis support for emergency responders and health care professionals.
“Elemental and DRAN are collaboratively building out an educational platform to help develop cultural competence in clinicians working with disaster responders, especially health care professionals involved in the COVID-19 response” she said. “Elemental Telehealth is donating training hours to DRAN to support their mission, and some of the psychologists on our platform offer reduced fee group therapy for COVID-19 frontline responders. From the very beginning I’ve always been focused on identifying how can I use this company to do as much good as is possible. How can I give back?”
Launching in a Pandemic
Brucia began working earnestly toward launching the business in September 2019, before there was any sign on the horizon of the coming pandemic. But it’s serendipitous timing, also, as demand for virtual services has skyrocketed.
“Right now we’re seeing the mental health effects of chronic stress, prolonged isolation and reduced social support,” she said. “While we have technology that can help, I’m hearing over and over again about how people are just exhausted by their limited ability to be with their loved ones, worry for the future, and grief.”
She coaches her patients — and herself — on the importance of self-care, especially limiting news exposure and giving yourself an opportunity to disconnect from her phone. Brucia recently began using a small hourglass to give herself brief breaks during the day to do breathing exercises and practice mindfulness.
“It’s so important to create self-care rituals that nurture your mind, body, emotions and spirit” she said. It’s also critical for people to find others to talk to. “Social support can make a world of difference when it comes to your mental health. It’s one of the most important protective factors against psychiatric disorders like PTSD. For those who desire and/or need professional support, mental health professionals are also here for you.”