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Is using a virtual therapy app actually helpful?

You can work out with your trainer, chat with your nutritionist, and even log on for a visit with your gynecologist via app. The next virtual wellness frontier? Therapy. The most well-known online therapy app, Talkspace, debuted in 2012, but it’s been gaining lots of traction lately and is now one of many mobile mental […]

Therapy App

You can work out with your trainer, chat with your nutritionist, and even log on for a visit with your gynecologist via app. The next virtual wellness frontier? Therapy.

The most well-known online therapy app, Talkspace, debuted in 2012, but it’s been gaining lots of traction lately and is now one of many mobile mental health clinics, like BetterHelp, 7Cups, and Etherapy Pro.

More and more people are skipping the therapist’s couch and using their own couch to work through their issues with a pro, remotely. At the same time, there are concerns about the model. Talkspace has been criticized for not being set up to properly handle situations that involve suicide risk or abuse, and for not being totally transparent on the privacy front.

Those are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the question I set out to answer is a simpler one: What’s it really like? Is sending your deepest thoughts via text really the same thing as getting them off your chest in person? And can virtual advice from someone you’ve never met actually help you figure out your shiz?

I signed up for Talkspace to find out.

Talkspace: Therapy App

How It Works

The initial setup is fast and easy. You download the app and create an account, and then you immediately start receiving messages from a “consultation therapist” whose job is to explain how things work and match you with the person who will be your long-term therapist.

Everything is anonymous, and my consultation therapist started off by asking me to share my “name, age, and what concerns you would like to work on in therapy.”

That prompted an agonizing few minutes in which I tried to figure out how to succinctly summarize everything that’s wrong with me, which made me think, Good thing I’m starting this therapy!

Once I shared some thoughts, she shared some more info on how the monthly plans work and then asked me to confirm I wanted to sign up. After a “yes,” you choose from three plans:

  • $156 per month for unlimited messaging therapy,
  • $196 if you want to add on one 30-minute audio or video session a month, and
  • $396 to add four of those sessions, so you basically get a live visit once a week in addition to the messaging.

They offered me a $30 off coupon on start so it ended up being less. All of the plans come with a live 10-minute initial consultation you can do via messaging, audio, or video.  

At first, I balked at the price— I think we’ve all been conditioned to feel like any app transaction should be cheap or free. But there are real live people, trained professonals, at the other end of these sessions, so you have to factor that in. You can’t get four real-life therapy sessions for under $400, not to mention unlimited messaging in between sessions.

I ended up signing up for the most basic of the three plans, since I was most interested in how helpful the texting conversations would be— the messaging aspect is what makes Talkspace and other apps like it so unique. Once I paid, the consultation therapist sent me three therapists to choose from. Each profile included a short blurb about their backgrounds and specialties, how long they had been practicing, and how many people they had helped on Talkspace so far. Two out of three of the picks sent to me had very few details in their profiles, so I chose the one in which the woman seemed to put the most effort into explaining who she was as a therapist.

Therapists: Set yourself up for success. We need to know more about you before we start spilling our life secrets. 

Betterhelp: Therapy App

What It’s Really Like: Pros and Cons

Once matched, you basically just send messages whenever you want to and your therapist responds twice a day, five days a week. I like that the expectation isn’t set up for round-the-clock responses. I think this is a healthier way to go, yet still gives you more support than a weekly office visit. 

The first thing I noticed is that the idea that Talkspace helps you fit therapy into your busy life is totally accurate. Case in point: I did my live 10-minute session while walking 15 blocks to a meeting I was already late for. I also immediately liked the fact that I could unload thoughts whenever something struck me. Waiting in line, in an Uber…in these moments I’d think about something bothering me and take out my phone and type away. It was easy and accessible 24-7.

7Cups: Therapy App

However, that also brings me to my first con: From an emotional perspective, it sometimes felt like I was yelling into an abyss. When you’re with with a therapist, their physical presence sends a message: they are there, taking in your concerns. On Talkspace, it can feel like you’re rambling into a void. You type and type and type and then a few hours later get a response, and that response often felt unsatisfying to me. Therapists always do more listening than talking, but the give and take feels more unbalanced in virtual space.

I also immediately felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was sending a running log of my personal anxieties out into the virtual universe. In an office, your therapist might scribble a few illegible notes, but there’s no recording of your every thought and question. While Talkspace makes lots of promises about anonymity and privacy, any remotely tech savvy person these days knows there’s no such thing as total digital security. For me, that felt a little scary. True, not many people might care enough to hack my existential dilemmas, but anything is possible… and it’s all stored somewhere…

But the biggest issue I had with the overall process was that I felt like via messaging, I could carefully craft how I presented my problems. In person, a therapist picks up context clues. They’d see what I was wearing, read my posture and body language, listen for pauses or changes in my voice, etc. In an app, all they’ve got is what you choose to tell them, and to me that felt like it couldn’t possibly provide enough of a picture of what a person might be going through. Plus, how many times have you misinterpreted a text, not realizing a friend was inserting humor or sarcasm, or meant to emphasize their phrasing in a completely different way than you read it? Taking advantage of the video session options would definitely help with this issue.

Last but not least: you don’t have to show up. There’s no appointment on your calendar, no therapist waiting for you to walk through the door at a certain time. The only thing holding you accountable is a monthly credit card charge, which may or may not be enough incentive to get to work on your emotional hang-ups. As a former life coach, I know the magic of paying someone to assist you in dedicating time to work on yourself. Making that commitment is half the way to success. It’s like how you might be more motivated to go to the gym (and work harder) if you have a personal trainer vs. just wandering around the gym on your own. 

To me, the best-case scenario would be paying for the video/audio sessions and the texts, but that might put this whole thing out of the price range for most people. It’s probably all about what you’re comfortable with. If you like the idea of anonymity and the casual, fast nature of on-demand help, it may work for you. But if you want to go deeper and have someone help you discover things about yourself you don’t always know how to communicate, looking someone in the eye is probably a better idea.

What are your thoughts about this? Do you think therapy should be disrupted by technology, or is it better one-on-one, in-person? Let me know in the comments. 

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