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|Amber Brooks • 6/01/16|
The Short Version: When Talkspace Co-Founders Oren and Roni Frank went to couples counseling, it saved their marriage. Now they want to open therapy up to more people by taking it online. Talkspace is an online therapy platform where over 800 therapists are available for individuals and couples. The website and app boasts helping more than 300,000 people since its founding in 2012. You can skip making an appointment — log in to Talkspace anytime to speak with a therapist by text message or asynchronous audio and video messages.
In the honeymoon phase of a relationship, it’s hard to imagine your feelings turning sour. How could you ever fight with the perfect person? She’s too easygoing. He’s too attentive. Well, it’s coming. No couple stays blissfully and perfectly compatible forever.
You’ll get home one day and say all the wrong things. You’ll be trapped in a car together for hours on end and wonder how you could ever think a road trip was a good idea. You’ll bicker, miscommunicate, mutter under your breath — maybe it’ll even get to the point that you turn to therapy sessions to work out your issues.
A few years ago, Roni and Oren Frank reached just such a breaking point, and couples counseling saved their marriage. This transformative experience inspired them to create a way to bring therapy to everybody online.
Roni and Oren believe therapy should be accessible to all. Research by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that 1 in 5 Americans are dealing with a mental health issue, and yet only a fraction of these people get treatment.
Removing barriers of stigma, cost, and access, Talkspace redefines how therapy works. Over 800 therapists work tirelessly to provide affordable, confidential, and convenient therapy available with a click of a button. Using Unlimited Messaging Therapy™, you can message your personal therapist from your smartphone or desktop any time you feel a need to talk to someone.
In 2016, the site surpassed 300,000 users who benefit from frequent clinical feedback. Flexible to your needs, the site offers a monthly, quarterly, or yearly subscription to your own professional therapist.
Shannon McFarlin is one of the hundreds of contracted therapists on Talkspace. She’s a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Head of the Clinical Advisory Panel, and mentor on the site. She began her career working in technology as a user experience designer before moving on to get her graduate degree in psychology.
She wanted to learn more about how people absorb information online and in so doing, she found her true calling. She became a licensed therapist working out of Seattle, Washington. Two years ago, she branched out from her face-to-face practice and brought her expertise to Talkspace.
“I felt that this is where the world is going with electronic communication, so I wanted to see how it worked and how it could help people,” she said.
Nestled in the upper west side of New York City, Talkspace’s offices house the development, product, and marketing teams. With a startup feel, this collaborative environment fosters a bustling and busy hub of activity. Shannon describes it as fast-moving and fun, with employees camping out in different rooms with laptops and sharing conference spaces.
Contracted therapists don’t spend much time in these New York offices, however, because they have the luxury of working remotely. Shannon works from home, logging in to a dashboard where she interacts with her clients in a private online setting.
Shannon’s 60 clients write to her at their own pace depending on their comfort level, time, and talkativeness. Some want to talk every day and others only check in once or twice a month.
“It’s handy for clients because they can write anytime they want,” she said. “I’m learning a lot more about people’s daily lives than I do when they just come into the office once every two weeks.”
She’s had some clients who have been with her for two years but said most people tend to be more short-term, averaging a subscription period of six to nine months.
Joining Talkspace is easy, taking only a few moments to sign up. To start out, the potential client goes on the site and asks a question, which prompts a free consultation session.
A Consultation Therapist chats with you to understand why you want therapy, gives you a run-down of what Talkspace can offer, and gathers information about you in order to find a therapist who’s a good fit. Once you choose a subscription plan (monthly, quarterly, or yearly rates), you’ll be assigned to a personal therapist specializing in your type of concern.
“The primary therapist comes in and introduces themselves and they get going on therapy,” Shannon said. “The client can message as much as they want, and the therapist responds twice a day, five days a week.”
Talkspace will soon be featuring a HIPPA-compliant video subscription that’s separate from the unlimited messaging program where therapists initiate calls with clients to get a more expedited and interactive conversation going.
Shannon particularly enjoys the video platform because it allows her to see her clients in a new context: their natural environment at home. “It’s more comfortable and relaxed,” she said.
The messaging system also has its perks. Convenient access to a therapist at any given moment allows a person to bring up an issue in the moment that it occurs. Instead of recreating the scenario later on, anyone online can quickly type out what they are feeling and thinking in real time.
“I’m hearing from clients more frequently,” Shannon said. “They’re writing about small things that happened during their work day. It’s more continuous care.”
For couples therapy, Talkspace has a joint space where a professional can speak with both parties. Each person has a separate username and login, so that the individual’s privacy is maintained for potential one-on-one therapy.
Shannon’s focus is working with couples online and helping them learn to express themselves more effectively. She finds that the process of writing out grievances and accusations slows down the reactive nature of the dialog.
Instead of breaking down into an argument, these discussions lend themselves to more thoughtful responses.
“Couples on Talkspace think about how they phrase things the importance of words and how it comes across,” Shannon observed. “They take the time to write to each other and understand each other in a different way.”
This style of communication is so helpful to couples that many of Shannon’s clients continue writing to each other even after ending their subscription.
On top of reading her patient’s messages and writing back, Shannon is also a mentor for new therapists on Talkspace. Every month, this site takes in about 700 applications from qualified therapists. These professionals specialize in a variety of areas so that the site is able to treat people with relationship problems, anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and all other non-life threatening mental health issues.
Talkspace constantly brings new talent into the fold, first interviewing candidates and then putting them through a comprehensive training program to assess their skills. Each therapist is rigorously evaluated.
Then, if a therapist makes it past those two hurdles, the next step is a 30-day training group. “That’s where they learn about the site,” Shannon explained. “Every week there’s different modules on how to use the platform.”
Lastly, new therapists undergo a mentor group run by an experienced online therapist like Shannon. A small group of about a dozen people, these therapists process cases and offer support and advice for each other during a four-month period.
This community of therapists talking through their work is a unique facet of the site. “Being a therapist can be isolating normally,” Shannon said, “but in this case it’s such a strong supportive community. We’re in contact with each other all day, every day. It really feels like you’re part of a team.”
This site welcomes newcomers, offering a modern platform where more people feel comfortable opening up. Roughly 50% of Talkspace’s clients have never had therapy before — perhaps because it was never so accessible.
“The three biggest barriers to people getting therapy are cost, stigma, and access,” Shannon said. “This platform deals with all three of those.”
Talkspace provides all the guidance of a licensed professional at a fraction of the cost. The subscription fee is cheaper than typical face-to-face therapy, and it allows users unlimited access. This setup is ideal for people in remote locations, for couples living in different cities, and anyone too busy to make an appointment.
When online, you can get help whenever you have time for it, no matter where you live. Another bonus of the system is the anonymity enjoyed by clients.
“People can be anonymous if they want, and so they tend to open up more quickly that way than if they’re sitting in front of you — which is a really nice benefit,” she said.
According to a national study conducted in 2015, men are less likely to receive mental health treatment than women. This could be because of cultural tropes making men less likely to seek out help or less comfortable expressing emotion.
Taking therapy online helps to bridge the gender divide. Because it’s a private and discreet portal, Talkspace lessens the feeling of shame one may feel in seeking out a therapist. Shannon tells us that she’s working with a lot of men in the online interface.
“To me, that has felt like a huge breakthrough,” she said, “because in my face-to-face practice I’m not seeing men — they just don’t come, because of the stigma.”
Through Talkspace, however, she finds men more willing to open up and learn about themselves. As a result she has “amazing conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”
“The advantage of this format is that I truly do not feel alone. At any time or place I’ve got my therapist in my phone, just a message away.” — A Talkspace User
Another way that Talkspace is bringing down barriers is by taking the therapy experience into a person’s home. This way, people who would otherwise be shut-ins, facing their emotional problems alone, can get fast help. For example, Shannon said it’s been a rewarding experience to work with moms with postpartum depression, talking to them every day so that they know they’re not alone.
“It’s really no different than being in-person — you’re just there with them,” she said. “You’re just sitting with them through what they’re experiencing.”
Even if you’re in a new relationship, perfectly content and reasonably rational, keep Talkspace in mind — just in case. You never know where life will take you, and it might be helpful to have a therapist or two (or 800) in your back pocket.
Sometimes therapy is a good way to better understand yourself — and your partner — and Talkspace makes it easy. Accessible and affordable, this platform enables a new form of therapy great for singles and couples who want to work through their issues more privately.
“We’re always working on improving the online experience for our clients,” said Shannon, “so that they feel as safe and secure as possible with a therapist.”