Anyone who has gone through the trouble of finding a good therapist can attest that it is one of the biggest obstacles to seeing one in the first place. It can also be costly, inconvenient, and draining for someone who’s at the end of her mental or emotional rope.
And yet, of all the ways to cultivate well-being, going into therapy is one of the oldest, time-tested healing modalities in humanity. While there used to be a stigma around seeing a "shrink"—which certainly lingers in many communities today—more and more people now openly engage with a therapist, even when they’re not in full-on crisis mode.
As mental health awareness increases, there’s no doubt that therapy is a thriving industry. The most recent reports on mental health spending indicate that it has become the costliest medical expense in the country, coming in at just over $200 billion. More people need help, more people are admitting they need it, and more are seeking it. Times are a-changin'!
With increased demand, wellness and tech companies are teaming up to make therapy more accessible. Behold: the therapy apps. These mobile-based portals provide the patient on-demand, affordable attention whenever (and wherever) you need it most. While apps make the experience infinitely more convenient, does texting with your therapist actually help?
First, what are the types of therapy apps?
As you might expect, there are several different types of apps on the market at present. Many of them offer a combination of these services, but after looking at several top apps and a few new releases, here’s a breakdown of what you can expect:
- one-on-one chat app
- support group chat rooms
- one-on-one video counseling
- counseling from a team of therapists that acts as a singular voice
- automated mood and habit tracking apps
Depending on the app, a range of skill sets are offered including trained volunteer listeners, coaches, social workers, licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The same goes for price: You can find anything from free volunteer listeners, though most apps seem to fall in the range of a $30 to $40 weekly subscription. A few of them are pricier, and the more qualified your therapist is, the higher the cost.
Is there anything inherently wrong or bad about gamifying therapy?
"No, I don't think so," said Bea Arthur, one of the first women to disrupt traditional talk therapy back in 2011 with her first startup, In Your Corner. She mentioned that only 23.9 percent of adults have clinically diagnosable mental health illnesses. Even though we all deal with mental-health-related stress, for most people it's not a severe issue. "Forty-two percent of people who signed up for therapy with In Your Corner (formerly Pretty Padded Room) hadn't tried therapy before. Doing it online does lower the barriers," she said.
Her company "gamified" finding the right therapist, not the therapy itself, but she said it was a crucial part of the process. "Long questionnaires in apps are a turnoff for patients, especially if the questions make them feel bad about their issue." Other apps like Joyable gamify the process. Arthur believes this is a key part of making therapy more accessible.
She shared one of her favorite online therapy success stories from a former client, a woman living in a socially isolated, religious community in Utah. She was married off at 12 years old nonconsensually, and she came to the In Your Corner platform because it was a safe space to find the support she needed to break free from a life that was ultimately making her unhappy. At 32, she went on her first date. "That's huge! She would have been shamed for seeking out therapy in her community," Arthur said.
I've been thinking about therapy. Should I try an app?
Therapists agree that apps can be a good first step into the world of therapy, especially if you can’t take time away from your life to travel to and from appointments or don’t want to bear the sometimes absurdly expensive cost of traditional therapy.
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a licensed practicing psychologist with a master’s degree in physical therapy and a Ph.D. in psychology, added, "People learn and make changes in different ways. For some, writing (such as texting) is more powerful than speaking (traditional therapy)." So if you really like texting or writing, a text-based therapy app could be a good venue to try.
Lindsay A. Henderson, PsyD, a psychologist who treats patients virtually using a telehealth app, LiveHealth Online, points out some limitations of seeing a therapist online: "[I]f a provider or patient is unable or unwilling to access the necessary technology regularly and reliably, then telehealth may not be appropriate. Some patients may also require a higher level of care than telehealth can offer."
Arthur said that apps also help shorten the time of the stimulating event as much as possible. Traditional therapy—and even some apps—often require a series of questions, a therapist selection process, and dealing with insurance. Many apps aim to simplify this process for users, breaking down barriers.
Do I miss out on anything by using an app versus a person?
While the apps have a lot to offer, some people simply prefer an in-person experience. Dr. Ellen Vora, a conventionally trained psychiatrist turned functional medicine practitioner and mbg class instructor, prefers in-person sessions. "Being in the room together is preferable in most cases, but being on the phone or on a video is so much better than no therapy at all! I find telepsychiatry especially helpful in cases where a patient can't get out of work in time for a session, or they want to do an evening session, or they established care with me and then moved out of town, or they simply work hard and don't want to take time out of their day to travel to and from their therapist's office." Plus, she often performs more subtle energy work and/or acupuncture on her clients, which is pretty tough to do remotely.
Arthur added, "Some people come in just to cry. I don’t think online therapy will ever truly replace traditional therapy." She explains that apps are helpful for people who are dealing with non-traumas. "There are levels—it’s more art than science. It’s all about the client and their needs. That’s the bottom line," she added.
Ultimately, it depends on what the patient deems "therapeutic" about the experience of therapy. If you prefer texting over talking, enjoy flexibility of scheduling, find value in connecting with others via larger group-chat functions, and feel more comfortable in the privacy of your own home—then therapy apps might be a viable option for you. If you value time away from your tech, the energy that comes from connecting with a person one on one, are dealing with a trauma, or require someone who holds space for you, video or in-person therapists might be better. We recommend talking to your doctor before engaging in any new therapy.