Tex­tual heal­ing

A new trend in ther­apy is mod­ern, con­ve­nient and af­ford­able. Bonus: you get to sit on your own couch.

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents - Words by Katherine hob­son

A new take on ther­apy

When Luyanda Vonai, 21, moved from Joburg, SA, and started univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, US, she was over­whelmed with stress and anx­i­ety. There was the cul­ture shock, which led to in­creased so­cial anx­i­ety and panic at­tacks, then lone­li­ness and self-doubt. Af­ter six months in her new city, she felt stuck and out of place. “It seemed as if ev­ery­one else at univer­sity was happy and fit­ting in, and I wanted that for my­self, too,” she says. She’d seen a ther­a­pist as a teen but didn’t find it help­ful, and the idea of try­ing again felt daunt­ing. Yet she was in­trigued by Bet­ter­help (free on IOS and An­droid), an app that of­fered a dif­fer­ent kind of coun­selling – via on­line mes­sag­ing. Af­ter be­ing matched with a ther­a­pist, Luyanda started tap­ping out her worries on her lap­top and phone, then wait­ing for a re­sponse (which usu­ally came within 24 hours). “It felt like writ­ing an email to a close friend, yet there was also that sense of pro­fes­sion­al­ism,” she says.

Com­pa­nies like Bet­ter­help and Talkspace (free on IOS and An­droid) are Uberfy­ing psy­chother­apy. They con­nect sub­scribers with li­censed men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als who have at least a master’s de­gree as well as clin­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Each ther­a­pist has favourite meth­ods, so users may be asked to talk about their dreams, child­hood, be­hav­iour pat­terns, moods or goals. But un­like a tra­di­tional ses­sion, con­ver­sa­tions don’t al­ways take place in real time.

The de­layed re­sponse can be a bonus. “In face-to-face ther­apy, some peo­ple talk just to fill the time,” says Ni­cole Ames­bury, a li­censed men­tal health coun­sel­lor on Talkspace. On­line clients re­spond at their leisure, and Ni­cole says she has more time to for­mu­late her re­sponse. She still tries to ac­com­mo­date clients who need a back-and-forth. In the evening, when one client is tempted to call a ma­nip­u­la­tive boyfriend, Ni­cole en­cour­ages the client to mes­sage her in­stead (typ­i­cal ses­sions on Talkspace can range from R160-R600). Ni­cole ad­mits that con­nect­ing on­line is dif­fer­ent – she can’t ex­press em­pa­thy by just nod­ding her head or look­ing into a pa­tient’s eyes. But she says that through writ­ing, a deep and per­sonal con­nec­tion can be formed be­tween her and her client.

And mes­sag­ing may ac­tu­ally help pa­tients open up. One re­cent study, from The New School for So­cial Re­search, found that peo­ple give more frank an­swers to sen­si­tive ques­tions via in­stant mes­sage than phone in­ter­views – likely be­cause they don’t have to an­swer as im­me­di­ately.

On­line clients might start feel­ing bet­ter as soon as they hit send. Re­search has shown that peo­ple who en­gage in deep and mean­ing­ful writ­ing re­port in­creased well-be­ing and re­duced anx­i­ety. While the writ­ing in these stud­ies was done on pa­per, one might con­clude that the ef­fects of on­line ther­apy would be sim­i­lar.

Men­tal-health ex­perts say that mo­bile ther­apy is promis­ing, but so far un­proven. While there’s been ev­i­dence sup­port­ing video-based ther­apy, the mes­sage-based kind hasn’t been stud­ied as thor­oughly. What’s more, ther­a­pists are trained to use their senses to as­sess clients. In­stant mes­sag­ing or email doesn’t give them a com­plete pic­ture of your men­tal health.

On­line ther­apy may not be a good fit for those who crave ther­apy’s hu­man con­tact (though it can be used as a sup­ple­ment). And nei­ther Talkspace nor Bet­ter­help is in­tended for peo­ple with a men­tal ill­ness like bipo­lar dis­or­der, or who are in cri­sis or want to try an­tide­pres­sants (coun­sel­lors are trained to recog­nise when a client needs a re­fer­ral to a spe­cial­ist or the ER). As in real life, it’s im­por­tant to find a good match; if you’re not happy with your on­line ther­a­pist, you can switch.

Nearly two years since Luyanda ‘met’ her ther­a­pist, she’s ad­justed to her new life. At first, she was mes­sag­ing ev­ery day, then twice a week. Now it’s down to once. Still, she says, “I like know­ing I can mes­sage her any­time some­thing comes up.”

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