This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Hold on, just texting my therapist…
For over 60 years, May has been designated as National Mental Health Awareness Month, an issue of widespread importance given that one in five, or nearly 40 million Americans suffer from a mental illness, and more than half of them—56 percent—don’t receive any kind of treatment, according to Mental Health America. Researchers and experts cite intersecting factors of affordability, accessibility and not least of all stigma, which still prevent or deter tens of millions of Americans suffering from mental health illnesses from getting treatment.
But now, new technology is pointing to new ways of overcoming some of these deterrents and providing more people in the United States and around the globe with access to mental health care. A number of online services and apps provide professional therapy, listening support, emotional support, counseling and self-help courses, which the companies and users alike say make mental health care or care for their mental well-being more accessible, financially and practically. Apps and online anonymous and private settings subvert stigma. And for many people who are running from one job to the next, from work to home, taking an hour or more a week to go to a therapist’s office isn’t nearly as feasible as texting or calling someone when they need support. Not to mention that many of the online therapy and emotional support/listening services and apps provide a weekly or monthly rate that is a fraction of the cost of one hour of face-to-face traditional therapy.
Here is a look at a few of the apps and online sites at the forefront of digital-based emotional support and therapy.
Launched in 2012, Talkspace has gained traction by offering “text” therapy, among other options, and allowing the consumer to be anonymous, even to their own therapist.
The mission of Talkspace, as described by co-founder Roni Frank, is to “make therapy affordable and accessible to all.” Frank founded the company with her husband Oren after discovering “a passion for psychology” when marriage counseling helped her marriage survive and thrive after a rough period. Frank quit her job and studied to become a therapist, but while she was studying she “realized that the mental health system in America is completely broken.”
Cost, stigma and access are the three factors that Frank cited as the barriers to mental health care, which she and her company are looking to solve using a digital platform that they invented to address each of the barriers.
Now serving 500,000 clients with thousands more customers signing up every month, Talkspace is a digital platform that connects customers to licensed therapists and allows customers to have unlimited messaging, along with some video and audio messaging, for $32 a week.
Frank said the messaging format is successful for many people because “therapy should be made to fit how we live today,” and messaging is a form of communication that is second-nature to most people today.
“It’s normalizing the therapy,” Frank said. ”[Patients realize that] I communicate this way with my friends. It’s not like going to a private office, a private practice. It feels less heavy and so reduces stigma.”
Frank said that most of Talkspace clients, the majority ranging in age from their late 20s to early 50s, are receiving professional help for the first time in their lives, and have never been in traditional therapy, usually due to cost.” Frank said that Talkspace is able to offer a price lower than the standard $120 for a 50-minute session of traditional therapy due to the mobile format, which eliminates the cost of running and maintaining a physical space, which in cities like New York drives the price of therapy up even farther.
In Frank’s view, it’s not just money that Talkspace is saving, but also time.
“Traditional therapy requires time commitment, travel, you have to find a baby sitter,” she said. ”[With Talkspace], users are communicating anytime and anywhere, so it’s very flexible and convenient.”
“We’re taking a very traditional profession and delivering it in a modern way.”
Similar to Frank’s personal experience serving as the catalyst for her and her husband’s decision to found Talkspace, Twisha Anand, Ph.D., director of operations, notes that the idea for 7 Cups of Tea was born when the founder and CEO, Glen Moriarty, “was having a tough day and ended up talking to his wife.p> ”
According to Anand, the interaction and support he received in that moment spurred the question of what people do when they don’t have someone there to listen to them and support them, which led to the bigger question at the heart of the company’s purpose—”what if we have a listener for every person?”
7 Cups of Tea has grown from 20 listeners when they first started in June 2013 to a current listener staff of 195,000 people, providing their several million plus users with the choice to either pay the monthly fee for traditional, professional therapy or speak for free with a listener who has been selected by the company and gone through a specific training process. The app provides self-help guides, listeners and group listening options for free, in an anonymous, confidential setting, which appeals to many of the users from 189 countries worldwide speaking to counselors in 140 different languages.
“We have a huge community of listeners who consider 7 Cups of Tea their home. It’s like coping together,” Anand said.
Anand notes that the app is particularly helpful for people who have accessibility problems, and don’t have the time, physical ability or financial resources to invest in traditional therapist appointments. The anonymous and confidential setting of the app also serves to lessen the stigma associated with therapy present both in the United States, and perhaps to an even greater degree, Anand notes, in various other countries and cultures throughout the world.
“Our No. 1 goal is that no one should feel unheard,” Anand said, adding that the company is reaching out to partner with schools and different agencies to reach wider audiences.
Happy is distinct from Talkspace, 7 Cups of Tea and Better Help, another online therapy service that’s been around since 2013, in that its purpose is not to offer professional help or therapy. Instead, according to CEO and founder Jeremy Fischbach, the goal of Happy is to “provide support on demand from everyday people who are extremely good at providing emotional support,” adding that emotional support is “a basic human need” often lacking in many Americans’ lives. The “Happy Givers” as they’re called, are individuals who are screened and trained to provide emotional support.
Happy focuses more on individuals who may not have a mental illness or be in need of professional treatment, but are “people suffering from every day stressors,” Fischbach said, such as work-related issues or natural life transitions such as going to college, retiring or moving.
The roster of “Happy Givers”currently includes 2600 people, which the company plans to grow as they also work on developing their client base since their launch in December of last year.
Fischbach says that Happy is in a sense aiming to create an online community of readily available emotional support to make up a lack of physical community and a proliferation of “empty calories” of social media that most Americans experience, leaving them with little real emotional support and substantive sources of listening and encouragement.
Happy is obviously based in the modern age, using the format of Uber or Seamless to instantly connect people with what they want or need—in this case, a kind, supportive, listening person. But though the technology is modern, Fischbach says that there’s also “something very ancient about it,” likening it to the way that people used to communicate more directly, and have more profound emotional connections within their communities.
Because Happy does not provide therapy, its mission in terms of mental health care is more in preventative care, enabling people to seek and find emotional support before their issues worsen. It also has “a promoting quality, a boosting quality,” Fischbach said, but is not in any way associated with traditional behavioral health therapy.
Happy is currently working with various prestigious national mental health organizations, such as Mental Health America, and forming relationships with well-known psychiatrists in order to ensure the quality of their services. Fischbach said that they are now available in the United States and are looking to expand to Canada eventually. They also hope to provide services in Spanish as they continue to grow, Fischbach noted.
Emily Neil is a freelance journalist from Baltimore, Maryland currently based in Antigua, Guatemala, where she works for a local nonprofit organization.