By Sara Ashley O’Brien
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) – As I was in a taxi on the way to JFK airport, I was glued to my iPhone, as always. Only this time, I wasn’t texting my friends, I was talking to a therapist whom I had never met.
TalkSpace, one of many digital therapy providers, offers unlimited text message therapy at a price of $ 25 a week. The unlimited texting startup, founded by Roni and Oren Frank nearly a year ago, offers people easy and inexpensive access to licensed therapists. And nearly 100 therapists are providing “textual healing” to some 70,000 people through the platform.
“Can texting therapy really work?” I wondered (as did my editors).
So I tried TalkSpace for a week. I was assigned Nicole Amesbury, a licensed health professional counselor, who resides in St. Augustine, Florida, and also happens to be the face of TalkSpace.
I was at a work conference earlier in the week so I wasn’t sure when I would be able to open the app and send a message. Luckily, this didn’t matter.
“Asynchronous chat is intended to fit into your life with ease,” Nicole wrote. “You can come here anytime you want, 24/7 and write your thoughts. Some people like to see it as an interactive journal with a therapist.”
I spent about fifteen minutes a day texting Nicole (from the beginning I told her my full name and that I was a journalist, although users have the option to remain anonymous). I wrote to him about everything from my anxieties about work to frustrations related to the guys I’m dating. Sometimes he would reply to me in a matter of minutes, and other times it took several hours.
At first Nicole told me that she would reply to me once a day, up to six days a week, but she actually wrote me a lot more.
I immediately recognized many of the traditional counseling tactics: the fact that he encouraged me to distance myself from the problem (“Imagine that you are a friend. Would you tell your friend, ‘You know Sara, I think someone else would do better than to you? ‘”) and the validation of my thoughts (” What I hear is that you are telling yourself that you know little and therefore deserve little “).
I was amazed at how much I could read between the lines, as it encouraged me to delve into certain issues or go back to something I had mentioned earlier.
Although she didn’t know me much, her simple questions in response to dating issues (“Why don’t you allow yourself more alternatives?”) Made me reflect on my own relationship history, and on why I was viewing my current situations through a black and white lens.
Unlike me, most TalkSpace users are not in their twenties. Many are in their 40s and 50s, according to Christy Paul, a licensed therapist who now works full-time with TalkSpace clients (she writes to about 30 clients a day).
Initially, TalkSpace users tend to communicate about three times a day and then this decreases over the course of several months.
There is no shortage of people in need: approximately 46 million Americans had a mental illness in 2011, but only 39% were seeking treatment. Barriers to seeking treatment include cost, stigma, and time commitment.
The goal of TalkSpace is to remove those barriers.
“It’s like WhatsApp with a therapist,” said founder Roni Frank.
The idea is not new. Lisa Kudrow plays the role of a therapist in her dark comedy series “Web Therapy,” which premiered in 2008. Kudrow offers short therapy sessions via webcam and iChat, because she has no patience with her clients. (The series now airs on Showtime.)
But according to Columbia University psychology researcher George Nitzburg, online therapy solutions like TalkSpace (which raised $ 2.5 million in funding in May) are only really effective for a subset of patients. Those with serious addictions or tendencies to take risks (such as self-mutilation or reckless driving) need more treatment than digital therapy can provide.
“Most forms of online or text message therapy do not offer crisis counseling or emergency services,” Nitzburg said. “In my opinion, this falls short of the target.”
Although I am undecided about resuming text message therapy, now that my research is done, Nicole helped me to externalize my thoughts. In answering his questions, I not only filled in the blanks for myself, but also shared parts of my past in order to ultimately become much more aware of myself and my anxieties than I would have accomplished by simply texting him. text to my friends and family.