The topic of poor mental health and its impact has been more prevalent in recent years. Due to demanding jobs, high expectations, and a stressful environment, reports of suffering from mental health complications – such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) – are increasingly common.
According to MentalHealth.gov, “mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.” Problems associated with one’s mental health can stem from “biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry, life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, [and] family history of mental health problems.”
Recent studies completed by Mental Health America, a company dedicated to mental health research and promotion of good mental health as a part of overall wellness, determined that more than 44 million adults in the United States live with a mental health condition. Furthermore, it reported that the rate of mental health conditions in younger populations is on the rise. Mental Health America recognizes that one in five – or nine million – adults are not receiving the necessary mental health treatment, often as a result of states lacking a sufficient mental health workforce.
With such a high demand for mental healthcare, companies are providing alternative solutions to help meet these requirements. In recent years, the concept of online therapy has been introduced and is making quite an impact on communities around the United States.
Online Therapy Versus Traditional Therapy
Many individuals are familiar with the concept of therapy – treatment used to address mental health concerns, intended to relieve disorders, and commonly conducted by a professional such as a therapist, counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Traditional therapy involves meeting in person, generally in the office of the professional. Online therapy, a new option providing support to Americans nationwide, offers an innovative approach to the delivery of mental health counseling. Online therapy is alternatively called e-therapy, distance therapy, web therapy, and internet therapy. Using various mediums, such as video chatting, apps, and voice messaging, clients are receiving a new kind of help.
The Benefits of Online Therapy and Counseling
Although reporters have been hesitant to support the new concept of online counseling or online therapy, many studies have recognized the benefits of such services:
- Traditional therapy requires more time for clients to meet with the therapist, while online treatment removes the necessity of driving to an appointment or finding transportation.
- Clients do not need to be concerned with the stigma of going to a therapist’s office, which often deters them from getting the help they need; instead, they are offered the privacy of speaking with a professional in the comfort of their homes (or another safe place).
- Individuals who have disabilities and are unable to transport themselves to an appointment can seek help on their own terms.
- If people are in a challenging situation, such as an abusive relationship, they have the option to seek assistance without raising attention (NOTE: Anyone in an abusive situation should seek immediate help from local authorities or contact The National Domestic Hotline)
- Reports have posited that conducting therapy in the comfort of one’s home can allow clients to feel “safer” disclosing uncomfortable information. Also, they may be removed from immediate triggers while in their homes.
Which Service is Right for You?
Rising popularity has led to a wave of companies offering online mental health services. However, due to the importance of selecting qualified professionals to assist with mental health conditions, we want to address the accuracy of some of the claims made by three popular services: Woebot, Betterhelp, and Talkspace.
Before we continue, let’s first clarify that if you are currently experiencing life-threatening conditions, such as thoughts of suicide or homicide, you should contact 911 immediately.
The fist service we will review is Woebot, a company whose mission is “to make mental health radically accessible to everyone.” Woebot is a talk therapy chatbot available via an application on one’s smartphone. For those unfamiliar, a chatbot is “an integrated messaging ecosystem where businesses create and automate personalized, results-oriented conversations across texting, chat, and social channels.”
Woebot was designed and created by a team of Stanford psychologists and Artificial Intelligent (AI) experts. Using daily chatting with clients, mood tracking technology, videos, and word games, Woebot helps individuals manage mental health via the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. The concept is to replace unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors with ones that can improve one’s mental health in real time.
Woebot, however, is not a replacement for therapy, which the company states upfront on its website Woebot.io; rather, the service is a coaching method for clients. The company addresses the idea that not everyone needs a therapist because “there’s 20+ years of rigorous research to show that DIY [Do It Yourself] CBT works. CBT delivered via the internet (and even video games!) can be as effective as therapist-delivered CBT for treating both anxiety and depression. Most studies show that people do better with some coaching. Coaching is not the same as therapy; coaches redirect to relevant material, but people still need to do the work themselves.”
How Woebot Works
Once the connection is established between Woebot and the user, the AI interface asks a series of questions. Woebot discusses mental health and wellness with each client, providing them with videos and useful tools depending on the client’s needs in that moment. According to the website, users can “think of Woebot as a choose-your-own-adventure self-help book that is capable of storing all of your entries and gets more specific to your needs overall.”
The Benefits of Woebot
Woebot is a great avenue to education for its clientele; it shares numerous solutions on how clients can overcome specific mental health concerns using CBT, which is a popular method utilized in traditional therapy. The interface can provide clients with an avenue for releasing emotions and sharing intimate details without the concern of judgement or betrayal from the other end. Lastly, it provides 24/7 availability to its clients, something that traditional therapy fails to offer.
The Truth: Woebot is a Resource, Not a Replacement for Therapy
The company is careful to discuss this distinction; it is not a replacement for therapy, as there will always be a need for traditional therapists. While the system can aid clients and provide adequate education, it should not be utilized for mental health concerns that demand the attention of a professional.
Interactional Services: Betterhelp and Talkspace
For those seeking a more interactional approach to online therapy, we will review two of the most publicly recognized options: Betterhelp and Talkspace.
The company’s mission is to make “professional counseling accessible, affordable, convenient – so anyone who struggles with life’s challenges can get help, anytime, anywhere.” According to its website Betterhelp.com, the service provides “access to licensed, trained, experienced, and accredited psychologists (PhD / PsyD), marriage and family therapists (LMFT), clinical social workers (LCSW / LMSW), and board licensed professional counselors (LPC).”
Betterhelp offers a variety of therapy options, including connections via chat messaging, phone calls, email communication, video chatting, and the mobile app.
How Betterhelp Works:
When a client first signs up for Betterhelp, the service will complete an intake process, which requires that the client answer a list of questions related to their demographics and mental health concerns, priorities, and expectations. The goal behind the assessment is to ensure that each client is paired with an appropriate therapist. Unlike Woebot, Betterhelp is offering its clients the opportunity to connect with a real person. Following the initial intake, a customer is asked to identify the type of services they would like, which vary in price according to the requested services. Next, the client is assigned a therapist, and then they are provided a dedicated “room.” The “room” is open 24/7 and provides clients access to help as long as they have access to an internet-connected device.
The Benefits of Betterhelp
Betterhelp prides itself on providing access to mental health care. Alon Matas, the creator of Betterhelp, started the web-based service after he was personally unable to find quality counseling services that accommodated his schedule. Betterhelp is a convenient way to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to locate mental health care, even in the busy world we live in.
Betterhelp has been a leading provider of online services since 2013. More recently, however, the company has been cast in an unflattering light, raising questions about the ethics and integrity of the counseling service’s staff and business practices.
One major concern that has been brought to the attention of the media is the company’s marketing strategy, which relies on social media influencers on YouTube to attract clients. The concept of sponsors is not new to the media. However, since Betterhelp is a mental health service, many skeptics have questioned the legitimacy of its platform.
Some reports have determined that the company pays $200 to each social media influencer each time an audience member signs up; additionally, it provides money if the influencer simply promotes the use of the company’s site. There are over one hundred influencers promoting the site, and although raising awareness of mental health issues in the United States could be seen as a positive agenda, critics find it disturbing that influencers are seeking such profit from the depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues of their clientele.
Additionally, the company markets itself as a substitute to therapy; it compares the cost of a private traditional therapy session to that of a session via Betterhelp. The terms of service, however, again contradict this implication. The terms read that “Counselor Services are not a complete substitute for face-to-face examination and/or sessions by a licensed qualified professional.”
Lastly, the company contradicts itself when stating that the assessment in the intake process is to ensure that each client is accurately paired with an appropriate counselor. In its terms, the company states: “We cannot assess whether the use of the counselor is right and suitable for your needs.”
Although many reviews can be found online about the benefits of the site, the recent controversy raises questions about the company as a whole, including whether the marketed information is accurate and whether or not the company is successfully helping clients.
Talkspace focuses on messaging as the primary form of communication between a client and his or her therapist. The company’s mission is “to provide more people with convenient access to licensed therapists who can help those in need live a happier and healthier life.”
The company offers a variety of services that cater to users’ needs. For individuals, both adults and teens, Talkspace offers unlimited text messaging. When necessary, the application offers more immediate services as well, including video chat, phone conversations, and email communication. Additional services include couples’ therapy; Talkspace for Businesses, which offers companies the ability to provide employees with access to Talkspace services; social media therapy; and free assessments to determine if one is suffering from anxiety or depression.
How Talkspace Works
As listed on the company’s website, there are four simple steps to getting started with Talkspace:
- Assessment: “Chat with a matching therapist to identify your therapy needs.”
- Choice: “Choose a payment plan that suits your budget.”
- Matching: Talkspace will “help you find the best therapist for you.”
- Therapy: “Start messaging your primary therapist anytime, anywhere.”
According to Talkspace reviews, once in communication with a therapist, clients can send messages – whenever and however they prefer and as many times as necessary. They will then receive responses from an assigned therapist one or two times per day.
A quick look at the Talkspace website reveals that the company is not shy when it comes to identifying the benefits of its platform. Additionally, it cites studies that support these claims. Some benefits that Talkspace provides to its consumers include text, audio message, video message, and live video; no insurance requirement; text message therapy, which allows clients to better structure their thoughts; scheduling flexibility;; and lower costs than in-office therapy.
Let’s Take a Closer Look
As mental health issues are a serious concern affecting millions in the United States, those seeking help are advised to connect with a qualified individual. Although Woebot may be beneficial for educational purposes, its lack of human connection makes it inferior to both Betterhelp and Talkspace.