Illustration by Vincent Mahé
But like so many things in this digital age, there is a digital solution. A new breed of online-therapy services offers flat-rate plans that allow you to text-chat with a licensed, accredited therapist as much as you like. You can access these services from a Web browser on your computer or smartphone, just as you would an instant-message session on Google or Facebook. The services encrypt your exchanges to ensure that your innermost thoughts remain private. Conveniently, however, your conversations are archived, with your entire session history available on a single page.
The therapy industry has tried to embrace similar technology before. In the early 2000s, several sites offered video- and text-based therapy. Back then, though, most clients and therapists found the lack of face-to-face communication a challenge. What’s more, these services required you to set up and wait for an appointment.
But for those of us who communicate with friends and family primarily using email, text message or Facebook, text-based therapy makes a lot of sense. I recently went through a major change—moving from Los Angeles to New York City with my wife—which was stressful, expensive and left me feeling anxious and out of sorts. I figured that these new text therapy services might be just the type of help I needed. After all, I could reach out whenever and wherever I had the urge: from my work computer, on my smartphone from bed at 2 a.m., or even aboard a Wi-Fi-equipped plane somewhere between JFK and LAX.
It is still a brave new world out there, but I found two services that offer text-based sessions with credentialed therapists who follow the same methodologies as a professional you might consult while lying on a chaise in an oak-laden office.
For $40 a week, BetterHelp lets you text-chat with one of the licensed mental-health professionals on the service’s roster. To enroll, I filled out a lengthy but simple questionnaire that took a few minutes to complete. Two hours later, the site assigned me to a Licensed Professional Counselor from Texas (LPCs in that state must have a Master’s degree and 3,000 hours of supervised practice). She sent me a message asking what was bothering me and what I hoped to get out of our discussion.
Over the next few weeks, I texted with my therapist regularly. She responded at least once a day, sometimes more, although I quickly learned not to expect immediate answers (these services aren’t meant to function as crisis hotlines). The site does offer phone sessions for an additional fee (prices vary), but I stuck with text; I liked being able to share my thoughts and feelings as they came to me.
My BetterHelp therapist asked the same kinds of thought-provoking questions as the traditional therapists I worked with in the past. (What is it about your future that you’re unsure of? Can you tell me about your old life and what is different now?) Because of the continuing, open-ended nature of the text chat, however, she helped me identify anxiety triggers and coping mechanisms much faster than it would have taken had we met only once a week. What’s more, I came to find that launching the BetterHelp site on my smartphone or laptop and writing out my thoughts became therapeutic in itself.
To see if I’d just lucked out with this therapist, I signed up for a second BetterHelp account, this time requesting a male counselor. I had a similarly positive, professional experience. If for some reason you don’t click with your therapist, the site allows you to request a different one. With nearly 300 licensed professionals actively participating on the site, there are plenty to choose from. betterhelp.com
Like BetterHelp, Talkspace offers unlimited text-chat with a licensed therapist, but it costs just $25 a week and gets you up and running faster. The site’s home page prompts you to “ask a therapist a question now” and enter your email address.
I kept my question simple: “How do I stop stressing about work?” Within seconds, I was talking to a screener therapist who, based on my request to be paired with a peer, set me up with a male LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in his 40s.
“This is your own private chat room,” my new therapist wrote me. “You can post [to your] chat room 24/7 any time you want. I will respond to your post once daily.” I ended up text-venting whenever I was moved to; as promised, he responded daily (Sundays excluded), usually in the morning.
A big bonus of Talkspace is that it has an iOS app for iPhone and iPad (an Android version is coming soon). Being able to launch Talkspace from my phone’s home screen made it much more convenient to write impromptu entries—relating details of a strange dream or the story of a particularly difficult moment—while I was on the road or even lying in bed. The app also alerted me whenever my therapist responded.
My Talkspace therapist wrote long, thoughtful responses to my meandering journal entries, pulling apart the elements and dissecting them as only a true professional therapist can do. He asked me to expound on and reflect on my entries, always checking if I felt that we were making progress, and assuring me that what we were doing had a positive end in sight. The process was identical to what I had experienced in traditional therapy, except I had access to it any time I pulled out my iPhone.
As I did with BetterHelp, I signed up with another therapist at Talkspace to see if my experience was typical. I received equally professional treatment from my second therapist. The site allows you to change therapists (currently 90 are registered with the site) at any point. Should you want to go with a more traditional talk-therapy route, you can sign up for a 30-minute live-video session, which costs $29. talkspace.com