On Nov. 5 and 6, New Yorkers can visit the plaza in front of the Flatiron Building in midtown and chat with a therapist for free. Two room-sized bubble domes replicate the interior of a therapist’s office—velvet chair, wooden tables, carpet, and a houseplant, but there’s no therapist inside, only a tablet device.
The startup Talkspace is showcasing its e-Therapy app that connects patients and therapists via a digital platform. At its core, Talkspace provides text therapy on your smartphone, and claims two advantages to traditional therapy—cost and convenience.
It offers a $25 per week subscription for “unlimited messaging therapy,” which Talkspace co-founder Oren Frank says is 80 percent cheaper than regular therapy.
“The therapy can improve the lives of almost anyone,” Frank said. “Fifty million Americans are referred to a therapist, most never receive help.”
Frank says that Talkspace is more convenient than traditional therapy because it’s a-synchronous—patients and therapists don’t schedule meetings, but instead can exchange texts anytime.
“[Traditional therapy] is very inaccessible in the pace that we live our lives, especially in urban areas, to go and once a week sit for an hour in a brick and mortar model therapy, many people find it very hard to find the time for it,” he said.
Christy Paul, a therapist for Talkspace, said that she responds to texts from patients within a few hours, and sometimes within minutes, usually twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
Like all digital versions of traditional services, e-therapy isn’t without its critics. Some researchers have found evidence that e-therapy isn’t as effective as traditional therapy because the lack of non-verbal emotional cues can prevent cooperation and bonding—or “alliance” in medical jargon—between the patient and therapist.
Madalina Sucala, a clinical psychologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said that although e-therapy expands access to treatment, such as to those who live in rural areas, she sees e-therapy more as a complement than a substitute for traditional therapy.
“I wouldn’t see a future where face to face therapy would go extinct,” Sucala said.
Sucala co-authored a survey of clinicians in 2012, which found that therapists were less confident in their ability to develop a therapeutic alliance with the patient via text messaging alone, although she thinks the jury is not out yet on e-therapy.
“Clinicians’ attitudes change a lot based on the newest studies published,” she said. “I would say more current studies are needed on the subject.”
Change of Pace
Where Talkspace may lack in intimacy, it could make up in speed. Christy Paul says that e-therapy can provide a rapid response to situations not possible to brick-and-mortar therapy.
She gave the example of a pair of patients who were in couples therapy together and had a fight while texting each other one day. The couple was able to copy and paste the entire conversation to Paul, who was able to talk to them while the situation was still fresh in their minds.
“It was so perfect, because you wouldn’t be able to do that with face to face,” she said. “I would have to look into their phone for a conversation from 2 weeks ago instead of when that situation happened right then, right there.”
Frank said that he wasn’t worried about the privacy issues involved in e-therapy, in spite of the recent slew of high-profile hacking cases ranging from celebrity photos to credit cards, because Talkspace had taken the necessary precaution.
The messaging is protected by 256-bit encryption and a user’s financial information is separated from the individual chat rooms, Franks said, which exceeds the standard for the data stored in hospitals.
“All medical information is going to digital, it is a fact, whether it’s your psychiatrist or general practitioner, it’s all going to be digital,” he said.
Launched in March, Talkspace boasts 70,000 users and thousands of subscribers. It raised $2.5 million in seed capital in June.
Frank doesn’t come from a medical background himself, and said that he was motivated to start Talkspace because he was a long-time user of therapy and saw how effective it was, and that without therapy his marriage would’ve failed.
“The modern lifestyle is driving depression and stress, amplified by social media and technology, people are very, very miserable,” he said. “Therapy is an amazing tool. It made a real difference in our lives and we wanted to introduce this value to other people.”