Textual healing: A new therapy trend on the rise

texting, phones,
New startups focused on providing on-demand psychotherapy are finding lots of funding. The companies give subscribers around-the-clock access to therapists via text message for a flat rate, a trend some psychotherapists say could help more people struggling with mental illness to seek and receive help. (Flickr Commons/Esther Vargas)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — Through Talkspace, a therapist is a text away. According to CNN, the startup has raised more than $13 million in financing, a sign the innovative business may have found a new way to deliver a service to the tech-oriented contingent of the public.

The startup is designed as an easy, transparent service – following a trend of recent startups. Users are paired with a psychotherapist and can send text messages to them any time, any day, for $25 a week. Talkspace also offers couples therapy for $149 a month.

Roni Frank, co-founder of Talkspace, said a lot of people are intimidated by the face-to-face nature of traditional therapy, and despite efforts from many in the mental health community, there still is an overarching stigma around mental health.

“It’s always easier to text. It feels so normal,” Frank told CNN. “There is a healthy distance when you are texting.”

Alex Finkelstein, general partner at Spark Capital, which is working with Talkspace, says the concept of on-demand therapy fills a major need for many people.

“There’s a massive need for therapy on-demand,” Finkelstein told CNN. “You could be in the middle of an eating disorder episode or a marriage dispute, and you can literally be communicating with your therapist in minutes.”

Roni Frank, along with her husband, Oren, co-founded Talkspace in 2012.

Talkspace hopes to infiltrate big markets, including China, and partner with American universities to work with students struggling with mental health issues.

“We have so many college students reaching out,” Roni Frank told CNN. “The mission is to bring therapy to a billion people around the world.”

Talkspace’s early success is a sign the startup is striking a nerve with the public, providing a unique service to meet a need. The question becomes whether text therapy can be effective.

Dr. George Nitzburg, a psychology researcher and adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, is an advocate of text therapy, but understands its limitations.

“Traditional face-to-face psychotherapy, in conjunction with medication, is the gold standard in terms of what constitutes the best practices when it comes to treatment. There’s no doubt about it,” Nitzburg said. “The issue is, though, for many patients, a comparison isn’t about the gold standard versus some lower standard, the comparison is about starting something versus starting nothing at all.”

Nitzburg argues text therapy can help lots of people struggling with mental illness that have obstacles that prevent them from getting help. A 2013 study by the Center of Disease Control said only 38 percent

of Americans with a mental health issue seek help. According to Nitzburg, only 30 percent of Americans with a mental health issue seek proper medical help. Some people seek help from their primary care physician or a spiritual healer. Nitzburg believes text therapy can be an effective way to get more people with mental illness to seek help.

“Stigma definitely plays a role. There are people who either feel stigma or they are still in denial. They are trying to muscle through their mental illness and not get help,” Nitzburg said of why so few people struggling with mental illness seek help. “But the rates are also low because there are just so many logistical barriers to treatment. … We can reduce those rates with text therapy.”

Nitzburg listed a variety of real-life reasons why people struggle with or avoid face-to-face therapy, including issues with child care and conflicts with a work schedule.

“These are issues for people with ‘easy lives,’” Nitzburg said. “Those in need of psychological support are more likely to have extra life stress. They’re not people who have the easiest lives. They are more likely to have money trouble. All of that worsens these hurdles. … Text therapy can help (reduce those obstacles).”

According to Nitzburg, some therapists are skeptical of text therapy because doctors lose some control over the situation compared to a face-to-face scenario. Psychotherapists gain valuable information by reading a patient’s body language and hearing the inflection in their voice – another tool lost through text translation. Regardless, Nitzburg still sees a need to move forward with forms of text therapy.

“Potentially, if built right, (text therapy) really addresses a gap,” Nitzburg said.

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