Doctoral Student Melissa Barker Launches Mental Health Startup, “The Phoenix Project”

Melissa Barker, '14Barker’s startup aims to make mental healthcare more accessible to all by destigmatizing mental health

For the third-most anxious country in the world, America’s obsession with “happiness” is ironic. Dating back to 1776 when Thomas Jefferson highlighted within the Declaration of Independence the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” the idea of happiness has become an unattainable ideal towards which Americans constantly aim. This is visible even today, within the highly-curated, impossibly perfect aesthetics of social media where a person might be drowning within themselves, but feels the societal pressure to put on a brave face and act as though all is well in their life. Expressing and outwardly managing poor mental health is met with labels of “crazy,” “baggage,” and further mockery. Evidently, there is a deep historical stigma attached to those who suffer with mental health issues. 

It is reductive to believe that this societal contempt of mental illness is warranted. Saint Mary’s College of California alumna and current student, Melissa Barker ’14 (MA in Leadership Studies for Social Justice, current doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership), is the Founder and CEO of The Phoenix Project, a social impact, mission-driven mental health startup whose mission is just that — “to make mental health care more accessible and available than ever [by ensuring] that each and every person feels seen, heard and empowered to continue their own healing and growth; to rise to the amazing future that awaits them.” Barker’s doctoral research focuses on how survivors are finding sustainable healing, especially during these unprecedented times.

According to Forbes.com, “Barker knows all too well the importance of positive mental health. She is a survivor of sexual assault, having been part of the 2014 Title IX lawsuit accusing UC Berkeley of mishandling reports of on-campus sexual violence. Barker was one of 31 survivors to come forward. It was during this time when the impetus for The Phoenix Project was born, as Barker realized victims of sexual abuse would benefit immensely from connecting with others with similar lived experiences.”

Barker believes that mental health care must be “available and accessible to everyone.” The team she has curated at The Phoenix Project serves three groups of people: “searchers and survivors” who are looking for a supportive community of people, “self-motivated healers” who work with trauma-informed Ambassadors, and “modern companies” and organizations who want to integrate mental health support into their business models. Since its launch and since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Phoenix Project has expanded beyond serving just victims of sexual abuse to include anyone struggling with any type of mental illness.

“All of our events have a trauma informed lens and are trauma sensitive for our community members that identify as having PTSD and CPTSD,” Barker said in an interview with Forbes.com. “We have a rich and growing array of event types: movement and body-focused groups, meditation, book clubs, mental health advocacy, and expert led experiences—healing doesn’t look a certain way and isn’t a one way street.”

Currently, the beta version of The Phoenix Project app is available to download on iOS and Android. It is also possible to sign up through the web app

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