I Tried It: Online Therapy

January 21, 2019

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Stephanie Goraczkowski

 

online therapy

Although philosophical interest in behavior of the human mind dates back to ancient civilizations of Egypt, India and China, the first instance of psychotherapy (what we think of as seeing a therapist these days) was developed as recent as the 1940s and 1950s with the "talking cure" method developed by Sigmund Freud. Many cultures throughout history had speculated on the entanglement of the mind, heart, brain, spirit, and with the development of cognitivism and existential-humanistic therapy, a new focus on promoting positive mental and emotional change through empathy became our modern day therapy.

 

Before we get into the hands-on part of this, I think it's important to break down the stigmas there are surrounding mental health therapy. Historically, psychological professionals were called "shrinks," which is short for head-shrinker, and comes from the idea that psychotherapy shrinks your brain. In the late 1800s, we we're taught that psychology was a "new science" and that the human mind was a place to be explored and manipulated. Of course, with anything there is the good, the bad, and the mad (scientists). Which, at the time, was the course of action for solving the human mind. There are still people who don't necessarily believe in it's benefits or are afraid to talk about mental health circumstances.

Today, psychology is a legit science. It's backed up by decades of research and everything. We have helpful doctors and methods that can alleviate mental anguish. It's not unicorn tears or a special potion in a bottle, but it is a tangible way to help your brain connect to your emotions in a healthy way.

 

So why has therapy been viewed as taboo?

There is a lot of fear surrounding mental health needs. Some people think that if they advocate for needing it, they'll appear "crazy" or "weak." Others simply fear not being "normal." It's a loaded perspective, and it's not a simple answer. Today, there is less stigma surrounding mental health, but there still are barriers. The first step is breaking down these barriers and dissolving the stigma. The three main themes are:

  • There's nothing wrong with me.
  • They can't help me.
  • Don't tell me what to do.

 

Okay, so let's break these themes down...

 

1.) There's nothing wrong with me.

Seeking a mental health professional, a therapist, a psychologist, etc. doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. You go to the doctor for an annual check up, so think of it this way: A therapist is a doctor for your brain. It's totally fine and, actually, very healthy of you, to get a WHOLE checkup; physical, mental, and emotional. Health isn't just eating right and battling the flu. Your brain needs some love too.

brain

2.) They can't help me.

Everyone needs someone to talk to. If we're lucky, we have great family and friends to help. But their help only extends so far, no matter the good intentions. Your family and friends have a personal investment and emotional attachment to you. They have a biased opinion. And, yes... hear what I say there? Opinion. Your personal relationships come with that little string of bias and sometimes, judgment, whether they mean it or not. These kinds of interactions can actually mentally deplete you even more. A layer cake of stress isn't the answer, friend. Therapists are trained to listen and help you cope. They have an outside perspective to help you deal with your life from a totally unbiased position. You can talk about your troubles, then leave them at the door.

door

3.) Don't tell me what to do.

Trust me, I get this. Oh boy, do I really loathe people telling me what to do. (It's the independent, only child in me.) Here's the kicker, though: Therapists aren't telling you how to live your life. They're helping you formulate decisions and realizations that can benefit your life going forward. You're riding the bike, you're choosing the bike trail; they're just offering you some training wheels on your journey.

bike

 

Because we live in a world of modern technology, it was only a matter of time before we took this to the internet, right? So, how does this work online? Can the same experience be replicated?

Prior to this experience, I viewed online therapy as a sort of streamlined approach to the traditional therapy method. And while I have very few encounters with traditional therapy, I decided to test out the online method for myself-- a little "therapy lite" version, if you will.

The basic rundown is this: You create an account. You're taken to a page, called a Confidential Talkspace where a Consultation Therapist (in this case, my person was Holli) messages you and asks you a few questions about your demographic and your specific therapy needs.

There membership tiers with the lowest level at $196/mo. This level gives you text, video, audio messaging capabilities and your therapist will be around to respond on the weekdays. Other tiers include live sessions and the capability to talk to your therapist a certain number of times, any time. Because of my inexperience with therapy, I opted for the lowest level.

One thing that sort of made me hesitate is that I didn't get to see who my therapist was before signing up for a plan. Something about throwing down nearly $200 before knowing what the heck I was doing was a little tentative for me. I voiced my concerns to Holli, who said you can change therapists to suit your needs at any time. This made me feel a little better about the flexibility, so I went for it.

A side note about the cost: While $196 can seem astronomical to some and like pennies to others, if you're looking for a good way to bring cost down, there are promos offered throughout the year. One of the promos I was using when I signed up was $65 off my first month. I have heard of other promos, such as $40 off your first month and $30 off unlimited messaging therapy. You can find these promos by searching online, or if you listen to podcasts, there are always some good promos using their podcast ad code too, so be on the lookout for those when they come around.

Anyway, after all of this, Holli matched me to my therapist. I got a list of credentials, their name and their picture. My therapist lives in my state and is tailored to my specific therapy needs, and my sessions with them are housed in my Confidential Talkspace, much like a private messenger platform. My TalkSpace app is password protected for extra security and confidentiality.

There are a lot of really great features on the app, too. They have a breakdown of your process, from intro to intake, to pre-treatment and handover. They also have a tutorial guide, so if you're confused about how to use the app, how to acquire information, or what is covered, you can read up on it.

I used my TalkSpace therapist a few times over the holidays. That time of year is seemingly inundated with plans and running around:

 

  • Too busy to function? (Or as Jonathan Van Ness puts it: "Strugs To Func")? Check.
  • Stress about holidays? About family? About life? Uh... Triple check.
  • Nobody else in your life has the time to talk about this stuff, because essentially we're all in the same stress-filled holiday boat, paddling without an oar, and oh - there’s a hole in the bottom and we can’t keep this thing from going under? Whew. Check.

 

Well, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a trial run of these services.

 

My assigned therapist, Anna, was around during the business day to chat. Think of all the times you have drunk-dialed your bestie at 3am after crying in a bar bathroom for a few hours. Anna was my bestie. At least during the weekday. Only this time I wasn’t upset about a random bar situation, or the fact that my shoes were too tall and there was nowhere in walking distance for tacos. I was a full-grown adult needing to deal with the daily stressors of a life loaded up. I suppose if you’re in the category of 3am bar bathroom, you could use this service for those instances too. Actually, someone try this out and let me know how it goes, please.

 

I won’t go into full detail about what I discussed with my therapist. (Hello… confidentiality, y’all.) I will say that for what I was utilizing these services for—overall stress and needing someone to speak with on essentially Marie Kondo-ing my brain—I was happy with the results.

 

Important: I am not a person who struggles from serious mental health issues. If you are seeking a resource to help with serious depression or other mental illness, I would suggest speaking to someone in person first, before going the route of online therapy. This is just my best suggestion, and I am not an expert or doctor in the matter.

 

Besides my own experience of basically "feeling around in the dark", I thought an added perspective from someone else who has used traditional therapy would be beneficial. I asked my friend, Rocky* what his experience with therapy was and how he made the transition to online therapy:

 

When I was younger, I had a fairly strong bias against therapy. My parents had gone and accomplished nothing when their marriage was falling apart, and popular depictions of “shrinks” and therapists as dealing only with extraordinarily troubled individuals, or wasting your time completely, seemed to describe the practice. Needless to say, I was not the least bit curious about seeing a therapist myself.

Then, as I began to learn about what therapy was, and in particular, about psychoanalysis, the therapy approach developed by Sigmund Freud, I began to at least be curious about what benefits it could provide. An aunt of mine mentioned that she loved going to therapy: “You get to lay back and spend an hour talking about yourself and learning things; who wouldn’t like that?” Not only that, but my grandfather, the patriarch of our extended family, was a professor of social psychology and was therefore readily available to answer questions and provide insights for me as I became more open to the idea of it actually being a legitimate benefit.

Therapy, as I would learn in my 20’s, actually is incredibly powerful for self-fulfillment and growth. Nowadays, therapy is offered not just in person, but like many other services, online.

Full confession, I do not see a therapist out of necessity or out of any kind of legal reason. I see one out of curiosity and the pleasure of insight. Some people desperately need therapy, medication, and a very structured approach to maintain their mental health, but I am not writing from that sort of experience. Rather, I am simply going to discuss the impressions I had between going to a therapist in the traditional way (an office, a sofa, talking, insights), versus trying out one online.

My normal routine goes like this: I visit my therapist about twice a month, give or take. I like to keep the appointments fairly spaced out, but also am flexible about when I go in. Usually, I take a seat in their office, relax, discuss some of the news of the day briefly, before my therapist reaches for his notepad (or, if you think about it, “my” notepad), to remind himself about things I have said and themes I keep coming back to, and with a few leading questions, gets me to talk about how I think and feel about the parts of my life that cause me a great deal of stress-- work, family, my crushing student loan debt, my relationship. Sometimes, I lie back and talk the entire time and don’t even make eye contact often, while other times the discussion is a lot more back-and-forth. At the conclusion of the hour, I get up, leave, and usually feel a great deal of mental relief. This was apparently something Freud liked to point out: the mind is like a steam machine and the act of talking out your problems helps to alleviate pressure that is building up and causing you “neuroses.”

Really, I just feel mentally lighter and a little bit better about my problems. Every now and then, I actually reach a new insight, or my therapist might introduce a different technique for dealing with a situation, or another perspective on my thoughts. From what I understand, as a casual user of mental health services, this is a fairly common experience, and one that I have found to be increasingly rewarding over the course of the last couple of years.

I decided to give online therapy a shot, just to see. So, I registered on TalkSpace just to try it out and see how it worked and how I felt about it. TalkSpace is a newer online therapy system that is meant to, in essence, make therapy or at least the beginnings of therapy, more readily-available to anyone seeking it. There are different “tiers” of membership (like most things), and because I was just trying this out and had no idea who my assigned therapist might be yet, decided to opt for the lowest level tier, which costs $196 a month. This includes texts, video, and audio messaging, and your assigned therapist responds to these things during the business week. The other tiers, which cost more money, start to include “live sessions,” where I could talk live to my therapist a specific number of times. Since I was just giving this a trial run, I decided to keep it basic and sign up for the cheapest option.

So, what is it like? Well, after you create an account, you are routed to an intake page where someone…who at first feels a little like a bot, but turned out to be a real human being named Leslie, to gather information about you and about what specifically you are seeking help for, as well as demographic information about you. After that, they will review your answers and forward you on to a therapist that is supposed to be tailored to your needs. Once that occurs, you’ll get a name, credentials, and a picture to go along with your new mental health professional, who lives in your state and has a background that makes them a good match for you, and you begin a process of essentially messaging back and forth.

Did I like it? Well, I can absolutely see the utility of it; in today’s increasingly busy and interconnected world, sometimes just sending a message about what you are thinking and feeling in relation to some of your problems in life could be very beneficial. I found it to be good for that kind of contact, but also, as a person with no need for intense, wrap-around services and heavy treatment, I did not find that using the service in addition to my quasi-monthly in-office sessions to be that useful. I have a fairly active social life, am in a long-term relationship, and have a diverse group of friends, so I didn’t find that I needed the service all that much.

I would say this, though, in conclusion: after using it for a month, I did absolutely think that, for some people, this may be a really good resource. If you’re busy, in a new city, or simply do not feel comfortable sharing random thoughts and issues with your friends or significant other, a service like this that could at least provide a sounding board for further actions is a pretty nifty concept.

(*Name has been changed for privacy. Also Rocky is a very cool incognito name to use, right?)

talk

Ultimately, therapy helps for a variety of things. It could be someone struggling with debilitating mental illness, or it could be someone wanting to vent about their roommate putting an empty milk carton back in the fridge. Therapy is for everyone.

As a whole, the benefits of online therapy can be useful, too. I would say that if you’re busy, in a new city, or simply don't feel comfortable sharing random thoughts and issues with your friends or significant other, a service like this could at least provide a sounding board. It's a pretty nifty concept and a decent solution for people with everyday stress, living in a fast-paced world.

To each their own. Get help and relief when and where you need it. The important part is that you actually do get the help and experience that you're seeking. You can always learn more about yourself and what you need in order to aide in your personal happiness and health. So whether it's a trusted ally, a traditional therapist, or an online version of it, we all get by with a little help from our friends... and therapists.

 

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