The coronavirus pandemic has created a national mental health crisis. Millions of Americans are struggling with anxiety, relationship difficulties, loneliness, and the various symptoms of economic reversal. Looking for help, Americans are turning to the Internet for therapy solutions and, in particular, to Talkspace, which connects mental health professionals with clients via video conference, phone, and text message. The subscription service, founded in 2012 and now running behind encryption and ads starring Michael Phelps, has seen a 25-percent user increase across all channels since the coronavirus pandemic began spreading across the U.S.
“It’s really been surging,” says Talkspace Chief Medical Officer Neil Leibowitz, a career psychiatrist. “We’ve also added Facebook groups and some free Instagram Q and As with therapists and made that free and available for people. Those have been booming too. We opened up a Facebook channel for coronavirus-related stress and there were over 1,000 people after two or three days. People are pretty stressed out and seeking help at high rates.”
For Talkspace, the current crisis represents an opportunity and likely an inflection point. Tech-mediated psychological services are not unusual — there’s BetterHelp, ReGain, and LARKR, to name a few — but the combination of isolation measures and profound stress may go a long way to normalizing them in a hurry. As one would imagine, Talkspace is rushing to create supply as demand surges. The company is now offering users dealing with coronavirus anxiety a specialized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program to help them learn techniques for handling the added stress and offering special pricing for virus-specific services. The fairly obvious strategy here: Optimize for sign-ups and retention; worry about price point later.
Talkspace’s user retention over the next six months will be interesting for a wider audience than the venture capitalists invested in the company, which was founded by Roni and Oren Frank. Those rates will represent the emergence (or not) of substantively new consumer behavior around therapy. Currently, roughly 7 million Americans attend therapy of some kind. Evidence suggests this helps them profoundly. Without digital providers like Talkspace, that number is unlikely to grow exponentially. Costs are too high and insurance is too stingy. But if Talkspace blows up, it could represent the vanguard of a generation-defining shift in approach to mental health issues.
Fatherly spoke to Leibowitz about the potential role remote therapists can play during a crisis, what people can do to maximize the usefulness of Talkspace, and what he’s doing to hold it together amid the chaos.
What are the main issues people are seeking help with at the moment?
The first is a lot of anxiety related to the outbreak. It’s a lot of people dealing with the worries of… ‘What if I get it? What if my parents get this? What happens if I get really sick?’ The second is the economic fear, which has been increasingly high as business is pretty much coming to a standstill. The third is relationship-related. I’ll be a little broad with that and say it’s people being taxed because they are spending a lot of time with their families and they normally don’t.
Talkspace is uniquely positioned to grow during this crisis and you’re offering specific programs to ensure that happens. What’s the program that you’re recommending to first-time users coming to your platform because of the coronavirus pandemic?
Therapists can do what is a brief two-to-three-week program to help people deal with the anxiety related to the virus. It’s a structured treatment that has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which may not be common to most people but which is really helpful for dealing with a lot of the stress. It incorporates a lot of techniques such as deep breathing and stress reduction that are more concrete and can help them adjust to the anxiety. The benefit is that can work pretty quickly and decrease someone’s stress to a level where they can focus on other problems that might have arisen and makes the much more manageable.
Therapy, as anyone who has ever been in it knows, requires engagement on both sides. It really only works if you work at it. And it’s hard to read a room over video call, much less text. How can people get the most out of a tech-mediated therapy service?
It’s very important to choose a therapist with whom you’re comfortable. And if the first match doesn’t work, you can find someone you are comfortable with. It doesn’t always work the first time. The first person isn’t always a good fit.
As a psychiatrist, some clients will come see me and maybe it wasn’t a great match. That’s okay. It’s not insulting to the therapist; it’s not hurtful. And most providers are happy when someone switches if it’s not a fit for them. We want clients we can help. We don’t want people who are forcing a round peg into a square hole. This is important for the client to do because providers often won’t push a client to switch because it can be very alienating. Having a therapist say, ‘This isn’t a great fit’ can really make a client feel worse. Because a lot of times the way the person perceives it is I’m being rejected by my therapist. So, generally, the switch should come from the person seeking therapy.
The second thing is to go in with an open mind. A lot of people are seeking treatment for the first time. That can be intimidating. They’re wondering What do I say? What do I do? How do I communicate? What do I tell someone? There is no wrong answer. It’s more about being willing to open up. Especially for men, this is a place where they can be vulnerable. The value of seeking therapy is that it allows you to let your guard down in a space that’s safe confidential, and comfortable.
There are certainly a lot of people who might be reluctant to try therapy. And there are now probably a lot of people trying it who aren’t quite committed to the idea. What do you tell that group of fence-sitters?
It’s a low commitment. It’s really a low barrier to entry. And until you take a step and understand what it is, then you can’t say you’ve tried it. So, to put it in English, if you’re suffering and struggling, you would be remiss to not check out what therapy is and see if it can be helpful..
As a psychiatrist, what are you doing personally to keep yourself mentally and physically ready during this time?
I’m doing I would encourage everyone to do, which is I am talking to people in my inner network and also my family more than I usually do. I’m calling my parents every day. I’m connecting with friends who I don’t get a chance to call frequently. Having that network of people I think is very valuable to stave off some of the isolation. Even for people who are in the mental health field, it does feeling isolating.
The other thing I’m doing is talking to some colleagues in the mental health field and asking them what they’re going through. Commiserating with people with whom you have shared experiences is important. There’s some value in talking to them because what you’re going through, whether it’s a business downturn or a lot of stress at work, that person is probably going to as well. Having that forum to speak about it is important. We’ve created some Zoom groups for therapists on our network and they’ve been very well attended. It’s just been a great space for them to seek support from each other and just hang out and chat.
It’s a hard time even for people working at booming businesses.
We went from a social society to a solitary society in little time. We basically went from 60 to zero overnight. While people are on Zoom, Google Hangouts, and whatever other methods of communication through their work, some people are very lonely. It’s very isolating.