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Text to Talk: The Rise of Text Therapy

By Alexa Pipia & Alison Kanski  |   @a_pipia  & @alisonkanski

May 12, 2015


Merriam-Webster’ dictionary definition of therapy is, “the treatment of physical or mental illnesses.” The broad definition doesn’t specify how a person should go about receiving this treatment and yet, when someone is “in therapy,” he or she is usually greeted with either shock or condolence. The word therapy may conjure up images of an exasperated client laying face up on a couch while a therapist nods behind.

Enter Talkspace, an online therapy site that includes a smartphone application. Founded in 2011 by New York husband and wife Oren and Roni Frank, Talkspace’s mission is to provide patients with an informal and budget-friendly method of therapy. For $25 per week, a significantly smaller amount compared to the $60 to $300 per week prices that could be charged for in-person therapy in New York, patients are connected to a therapist who they can text at their leisure.

“I know how time works in New York City,” said Katherine Glick, a licensed professional counselor and one of Talkspace’s first therapists. “And I know there’s pressure for more time.”

Glick touches upon one of the many reasons patients, especially New Yorkers, are searching for alternative forms of therapy rather than the in-person psychotherapy people have been accustomed to since 1853. Talking as a method for treating emotional problems came about when English psychiatrist Walter Cooper Dendy introduced the term ‘psycho-therapeia.’ Freud popularized the method further in the early 1900s.

“They don’t need to schedule time for therapy,” she said. “The therapy comes to them.”

Those interested in Talkspace can either visit the website or download the app and have a free consultation with an available therapist. Once the therapist assesses the patient’s needs, the patient is then asked to pay for the first week and is assigned to a therapist who can work with his or her specific concern. The patient is allowed to text the therapist on an as-needed basis, but it’s up to the therapist what time and how many times he or she will respond.

So How Does Text Therapy Work?

For $25 per week, clients are connected to a therapist who they can text at their leisure.
The therapist will determine a texting plan with their patients

“They don’t need to schedule time for therapy,” said Dr. Glick. “The therapy comes to them.”

Scott Christnelly, a licensed clinical social worker, has been a therapist on Talkspace since last September. He works during the day as a therapist for a non-profit and texts his Talkspace clients at night. “I don’t know what’s going on in a client’s mind until [he or she] tells me,” said Christnelly. He said he doesn’t limit the amount of times a client can contact him, but he chooses to respond only once a day.

Though text therapy might be convenient for those who are unable to dedicate the time for an hour a week in-person session, or might provide a platform for those who are intimidated by speaking to a therapist in person, there are still some drawbacks to text therapy.

“Our brains react differently when staring at someone’s body,” said Dr. Todd Essig, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. “The effect of face-to-face contact is tremendous.”

Essig believes if someone doesn’t have a serious mental illness and is trying to deal with stress or relationship issues, he or she would find grabbing coffee and speaking to a friend more beneficial than texting a therapist.

“It’s taking the interpersonal connection out of therapy,” said Julie Bartels, 23, a psychology master’s candidate at Pace University.

The problem with texting a therapist comes with the lack of emotion that comes with simply reading a message. Bartels says even with therapy via Skype or phone call, therapist and clients are able to pick up on tone of voice and reactions to conversation. A text message can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.

But, that isn’t to say people should steer clear of alternative forms of therapy all together. While Essig believes Talkspace should be used in conjunction with in-person therapy, Bartels suggests it should be something used to wean people off their weekly therapy sessions.

“You have to be able to distance yourself from your therapy,” Bartels said. “You shouldn’t be using your therapist as a crutch, and text therapy could have an opposite effect.”

Talkspace and text therapy are still new and research has come up with mixed results. Yet the treatment is appealing for those, such as busy New Yorkers, who believe they don’t have an hour to spare.

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CityMind explores mental health in New York City. The articles produce reflect the mental health concerns of particular communities, explores access to quality care and delves into larger social issues concerning stigmatization. The stories are New York based but reflect the larger issues of mental health nationwide. We hope the project will serve both as a news source and a resource.

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