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Startup — In a luxury flat in the hip Vesterbro district of Copenhagen, two young entrepreneurs are offering the kind of therapy that they needed themselves: Where psychology students help other young people, and where it is cool to take care of yourself.
As a psychology student at the University of Copenhagen, Jonas Schøsler gradually became more and more frustrated.
He didn’t find that he had the opportunity to practise what he was studying, to become a good practicing psychologist. With only five days of counselling training during the course of the bachelor’s programme, there was almost no chance of talking to ordinary people. Only lots of books, and a few fellow students that you could practice on now and again.
»The way I see it, the psychology study programme has not followed the trends. It is one of the few study programmes where we believe that we, for heaven’s sake!, should not talk to a real person until we graduate and have been given the famous title,« says Jonas Schøsler.
So he decided to start up his own business. A place where psychology students could test and train their skills as therapists.
Under the stucco ceiling in a large, airy living room on Vesterbrogade street, 27-year-old Jonas Schøsler and 28-year-old Oliver Herlitschek are co-owners of the company Avilius. We speak in hushed voices, because a therapy is in session in the adjacent room. The stucco ceilings are, throughout the 200 m2 luxury flat, painted in subdued colours with matching light, floor-length, curtains. Sky-blue, beige, dusty yellow and doorframes painted in a light sea green.
The large apartment is a therapy practice with space for four sessions at a time for both individuals, couples and groups. In 2019 it started out as just a good idea and a setting where psychology students could get some practical experience. Now – just four years later – it has turned into Avilius. A therapy service that offers conversational therapy from young people to young people.
Avilius has a few trained psychologists, but the therapists are otherwise just psychology students. They have to, as a minimum, be studying on the 6th semester, and they get supervised twice a month with authorized psychologists. The price, on the other hand, of only DKK 399 a session, is student-friendly, and the therapists are hopefully people that the clients can relate to, explains Oliver Herlitschek.
As I see it, it can never be dangerous to have a conversation with another young person.
»We have so many friends who have been to a psychologist. And they spend half of a DKK 1,250 billable hour explaining what Snapchat is,« he says.
»There is often a generational divide. And you don’t have to spend half an hour explaining to your psychologist what Snapchat is. And when you are in the same age group, you can quickly have a deeper conversation because we are in the same place in life. You do not need to explain what it is like to be 22, because your therapist has just been there.«
When Jonas Schøsler, who now has a master’s in psychology, and Oliver Herlitschek, who graduated as a designer, started Avilius, it did not go unnoticed. Their new company faced scepticism from the established psychologist community – including the Danish Psychological Association.
The criticism included claims that the psychology students did not have the academic skills to assess whether a client suffered from a mental disorder and needed more professional help than what Avilius had to offer.
»That is why the first conversation with us is free. And when someone faces a challenge that we cannot, or should not, get involved with, and there is the need for more professional help – then we refer them to others,« says Jonas Schøsler.
»As I see it, it can never be dangerous to have a conversation with another young person. Especially when it takes place in a professional framework,« says Oliver Herlitschek.
And everything seems to attest to there being a need for this kind of conversation, according to Oliver Herlitschek. Danish young people are not thriving, according to numerous studies. 34 per cent of young women between 16 and 24 have poor mental health, according to the Danish health authority’s national health profile from 2021. The same applies to almost 22 per cent of men in the same age group. At the same time, there is a shortage of psychologists throughout the country. And even though you, as a young person between the ages of 18 and 24, are entitled to free psychological counselling in Denmark, the waiting time is an average of 26 weeks, according to a study from 2022 conducted by the Danish Psychological Association.
During last year’s Danish general election, all of the political parties in the Danish parliament agreed that the lack of well-being among young people is a serious challenge. But it can be difficult to point to what it is exactly that is making young people unhappy. Even if you’re in the middle of it.
»It is, of course, super complex,« says Jonas Schøsler and takes a deep breath.
»But our experience, based on what we see here in Avilius, is that our generation is to a great extent challenged by an accelerating society. That there is so little that is predictable and for ever,« he says.
»The pace is higher than ever before and the expectations on how you should be and act, what you need to think, and what you need to be good at, are shifting more than ever before. It’s really hard to keep up. You have to run today just to stay in the same place,« says Jonas Schøsler. He knows it all too well from his own life.
»It’s as if my relevance is constantly being challenged. I’m constantly afraid of hitting an expiry date.«
It’s okay to be seen in our practice, because it’s okay that you are here, and it’s great that you take care of yourself.
For Jonas Schøsler, the concerns can be about what is going on right now, and about constantly keeping up with all the new stuff. What do people not yet know that they need? What are other people inspired by?
And it helps to have a lot of things happening at the same time. To feel that you’re somehow staying on top of things, Jonas Schøsler explains. That you are building your CV or Instagram bio.
»It’s probably just a fear of not being relevant,« says Jonas Schøsler.
»This is also completely insane,« Oliver Herlitschek interrupts.
»Just the fact that we are alive is a miracle. It’s really crazy that I have to find my own angle on this, my own quirk to somehow feel relevant,« he says.
Oliver Herlitschek suddenly lost his mother in 2020. She had a severe headache, and a few days later she died of a brain haemorrhage in the hospital. This really put Oliver Herlitschek’s life into perspective, and he subsequently decided to delete his calendar app and cancel all appointments for the near future.
»It’s not because you need to learn something from losing something. But I quickly found out that nothing actually happens when you just pull the plug. The world goes on, the company goes on, and life goes on without a booked calendar,« says Oliver Herlitschek.
»I probably have a simpler approach to life today. I’m still trying to find out what’s important to me. But I really believe that it’s also best for our company that we thrive in the way we do things ourselves,« he says.
»But I’m still a bit addicted to going on Linkedin Tuesdays at the peak time between 9 and 10, where I know that there is the most engagement, so everything is all in process.«
The purpose of Avilius is not to help everyone. The two young men acknowledge that it is mostly privileged young people who seek out the rooms in Vesterbrogade street, where a low-volume hip hop vibe resounds through the living room, and the apartment’s designer pink bathroom.
One of the goals, however, is to make therapy ‘in’ for young people.
»It has to be less stigmatizing to seek out psychological help. It is a conscious choice that Avilius is not yet another place where the first thing you meet is a stock photo of a window with rain in black and white, or a sunrise,« explains Oliver Herlitschek, when he is asked to take me through Avilius’ completely styled out social media identity and the layout of the practice in Vesterbro.
»That’s why we don’t do anything to hide people who enter the premises as clients. It’s okay to be seen in our practice, because it’s okay that you are here, and it’s great that you take care of yourself.
I do not want to be responsible for some middle-aged person who has invested in some bad companies, and who now seeks redemption by investing in some therapy.
They therefore open the doors every month to their rooms to give people an insight into various forms of therapy. They have had music therapy, sound baths, art therapy and even therapeutic breathing exercises. They publish podcasts and write blog posts about the classic challenges of their generation. Exam stress, financial stress, heartbreak, climate anxiety, winter blues.
»When we sit here in these therapy booths, we do not see each other, and we don’t notice that we are talking about problems that are completely identical, because they are about the challenges of our generation in general. I think that we can help normalize the emotions that many of us have by creating a semi-open space through group therapy, events and social media,« says Oliver Herlitschek.
Avilius took a small loss last year. This year, things are looking up a bit. It is operating pretty much at cost, employees get their salary and are paid their preparation time, but the two owners have not yet paid any salaries to themselves. So Jonas Schøsler is living off some sessions he does as a psychologist, while Oliver Herlitschek does freelance design work and takes some evening shifts at a friend’s restaurant.
So much for the suspicion that the two guys had set up a money-maker. Even though their service can not be compared to other private-sector practitioners, their prices are much lower. They have, at the same time – and unlike the professional psychological counselling offered for free by the state – no waiting lists.
»But fundamentally, we are, just, a really bad business,« says Jonas Schøsler.
»399 is just too cheap. But is has been our premise from the start that it should be available to as many people as possible. And with the waiting lists we see, there is clearly a need for more supply.«
One of the reasons the company’s financial situation looks so flimsy is that Avilius has consistently said no to investors.
So we won’t see you on the Dragon’s Den TV programme for budding entrepreneurs?
»No. No reality TV for us. I don’t want to have to be responsible towards some middle-aged man who has invested in some bad companies, and who now seeks redemption by investing in some therapy. We have been offered this many times, but they always wanted it to be their project, and not ours,« says Oliver Herlitschek.
So to get the company to survive, the two entrepreneurs have instead started up a sister company Blume, which offers therapy to companies.
»There are some completely different budgets out there in the labour market, which means that we can help many more people — including young people — without them having to pay the money out of their own pocket. And this fits our vision perfectly,« says Oliver Herlitschek.