Can Talkspace Make "Text Therapy" a Reality?

There seems no question that people with mental disorders aren't getting the help they need.   According to statistics by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),  while 20 percent of U.S. adults experienced some form of mental illness in 2011, only four out of ten of them actually received treatment.   Even for people with serious mental illness, their likelihood of getting treatment was only slightly higher (59.6 percent).

There can be many reasons for not seeking treatment, including the expense involved and the long waiting lists for many community programs.   But can a new tech-based startup help make treatment more accessible for many people in need.   Known as Talkspace, this new initiative by married co-founders Oren and Roni Frank uses online messaging to deliver treatment services with licensed therapists on a flexible basis.  For people wanting to use Talkspace, there are different payment options with the $25 a week plan for unlimited service being the most popular.

Oren and Roni Frank credit couples therapy with helping their own marriage during a critical period in their lives.   The experience encouraged Roni Frank to leave her career as a software developer to study psychology and to investigate ways that mental health care could be made more accessible.  “Both Roni and I love traditional face-to-face therapy,” Oren Frank said in an interview with Yahoo. “We’re not fighting it, not trying to replace it. We just think since the average cost is around $150 an hour, it’s completely inaccessible for most people in need.”   While they deny that Talkspace is intended to replace conventional psychotherapy, they do feel that the current mental health system is "broken" given that many people in need cannot afford to get help.  

Though some therapists express doubts about the effectiveness and the privacy limitations of an online platform like Talkspace, the Franks defend their start-up by citing research suggesting that Internet-based treatment can be as good as the face-to-face version.    Still, available research mainly focuses on using online treatment in combination with more traditional methods so online treatment systems such as Talkspace represent a radical, and possibly dangerous, alternative.

When Yahoo approached Dr. Lynn Bufka, associate executive director of practice research and policy for the American Psychological Association about Talkspace,  her response reflected overall fears about the level of care patients actually receive and the actual research used to endorse text therapy.  What is concerning is that this research is not on text therapy as the specific or sole intervention,"  she told interviewers.  "Rather this research is on various uses of technology in providing mental health services. It would be inaccurate to say that this research demonstrates the efficacy of text therapy.”

In response, therapist Nicole Amesbury, who is also head of clinical development for Talkspace,  describes practicing online as "therapy for all."    While some patients may need greater care than what can what Talkspace counselors can provide, they can still get the help they need rather than cope with the often-scarce mental health resources in their local community. 

In the meantime, the Franks say that they will share their findings with the APA to demonstrate the effectiveness of text therapy and to ensure people get more care.  But they also acknowledge that there will still be a place for conventional therapy in the expanded health care system they envisage.

“If I broke my foot I would go to the ER, and you know, if Roni breaks my heart I will go to therapy,” Oren quips.



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