After a traumatic breakup, Julia Scinto, a fashion designer in Manhattan, found herself Googling sites far and wide, looking for any available resource to help her feel better.
“I even considered hypnosis,” said Ms. Scinto, who designs women’s wear for Macy’s private label.
Instead, she discovered Mend, an app and online community that serves as part personal trainer, part online refuge for the brokenhearted.
On the Mend app, users are introduced to an animated avatar of the Mend founder, Ellen Huerta, and her reassuring voice offers guidance on how to move forward, with topics like “detoxing” from your ex; redefining your sense of self — even how to get a better night’s sleep.
“It’s this charming and endearing voice of a friend,” Ms. Scinto said. “And there’s a line, ‘We never get tired of hearing about your breakup,’ and those words are like an oasis in the desert.”
Geri Dugan, who works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Chicago, knows all too well the mixed emotions that come after a love affair ends. After being stunned by a relationship that didn’t work out, she said, she felt like an “emotional basket case.”
Ms. Dugan found Mend through Ms. Huerta’s podcast “Love Is Like a Plant.” Now, for more than eight months, she has been applying Mend’s daily regime, which includes monitoring one’s self-care, journaling exercises, a Spotify playlist and a book club on Good Reads. She has also navigated through difficult days with support from Mend’s Facebook group.
It “really helped normalize the experience,” Ms. Dugan said, adding, “I’m even recommending it to some of my patients going through things like divorce.”
In her Santa Monica, Calif., office, just blocks from the Pacific, Ms. Huerta, 30, with a tumble of dark hair and giant blue eyes, admitted that she had always been drawn to matters of the heart. “Mend started very organically after I went through a breakup,” she said between sips of her hand-blended rooibos tea. “I had a lot of resources at my disposal — I had supportive friends and access to therapy — but I still was having such a hard time moving forward.”
Ms. Huerta, identified by the name Elle on Mend, found online sites that offer breakup advice to be disappointing, with generic insights like “It just takes time” or wearisome directives like “Post a photo on social media of yourself with someone new.”
She said she set out to build a better digital experience for the newly solo, where users could shake their feeling of helplessness and take action. As a former Google employee, she was familiar with the tech field and took her cues from fitness and brain-health apps. “We are taking those parts of our lives very seriously,” she said. “Yet we weren’t doing that with our love lives, which is at the core of who we are.”
Mend started as a newsletter focused on recovering from heartbreak. Now the company is working with Silicon Beach’s highly selective business accelerator MuckerLab (whose portfolio includes tech companies like TaskRabbit and the Black Tux). MuckerLab invested seed money in Mend and assists Ms. Huerta with business development, including product design and marketing. Still less than a year old, the app has been downloaded in more than 100 countries, and many Mend users return for the supportive community, which spills over with tales of solidarity.
“One of my personal missions is to erase the shame and taboo of heartbreak as something to just get over,” Ms. Huerta said. One way she addresses that is by drawing on her background in science. (She has a degree in geosciences from Wellesley, and her father is a geophysicist). She counsels the Mend community that it’s not just emotion that causes a wave of intense feelings, it’s also biology.
“It’s different for everyone,” Ms. Huerta said, “but when you go through a separation with someone who you have been intimate with, your body can tell that there’s been a separation. You’re giving off hormones, and they are giving off hormones, over time you become addicted to that source of feel-good hormones.”
She pointed to a 2016 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, in which researchers found that romantic love stimulates the same area of the brain as addiction does, with symptoms like euphoria, craving and emotional and physical dependence. Love’s addictionlike qualities, the study states, have developed in humans to encourage procreation and, thus, our very existence.
Although much of Ms. Huerta’s advice for Mend users is grounded either in science or in her own romantic mistrials, and she encourages a range of options, like meditation and mood-boosting teas, she firmly believes in the magic and mystery of love, which no data, chart or study can pinpoint. It is that belief that will inform a Mend app update scheduled to roll out in the spring.
One sentiment remains: “It’s true what they say,” Ms. Huerta said. “Love really is the drug.”