As someone who has struggled significantly with depression and anxiety, I am 100 percent pro-therapy. Partly because talk therapy is a recognized, hugely-effective tool for easing mental health suffering (and anything that eases mental health suffering is gold as far as I'm concerned), but also because my first experience with psychotherapy was incredibly positive, and showed me first-hand just how valuable a good therapist really is. That's not to say though, that there aren't plenty of downsides: therapy is expensive, it can be time-consuming, and it can also be really hard to find a therapist who is a good match for you (and finding the right therapist is super important). So when I heard about the option for online therapy — which would hypothetically solve all three of those problems — I decided to try online therapy for a month to see how it compared.
I spent close to four years in almost-weekly therapy with my first, amazing therapist, and it was an incredibly important resource for me in what was a very tumultuous and difficult time in my life. Unfortunately, that amazing therapist closed her practice a couple years ago, and I've since had to learn the hard way just how difficult it can be to find a therapist you actually like and click with. Over the past year or so, I've had sessions with a handful of different psychologists, but none of them felt like good fit. And now that I'm a busy mom of two who pretty much needs to reorganize her entire life to find an hour a week to see a professional, continuing to test out new therapists just isn't really an option. So after spending $300 a few months back for an hour and a half with a frustrating psychologist who pretty much told me to suck it up (helpful!), the idea of logging onto a website to chat with a therapist that had been chosen specifically for me, at a fraction of the cost I'd normally spend, seemed pretty ideal.
I wasn't particularly struggling or in crisis when I began this experiment, but I was feeling like I could probably benefit from having someone to talk to again. So much of mental health treatment services focus on helping people who are really in trouble — and that is obviously so important — but most depressed people don't just become that way overnight. I figured an online therapist wasn't going to be nearly as helpful as a real, in-person therapist, but given that there are probably a lot of people out there who could use some support, but aren't necessarily in a position where they need to sit on a psychologist's couch every week, online therapy seemed like it could be a good in-between, accessible choice.
There are a number of service providers online these days that specialize in chat or text-based therapy, so I narrowed my decision down to two: Talkspace and Betterhelp. My goal was to see how the experience of online therapy compared to in-person therapy, and whether it was as good an option as it sounded like in theory.
One thing I really liked about online therapy right off the bat? Both of the providers I signed up with had a big roster of therapists available, and they both tried to tailor the therapist they give you to your actual needs. That was helpful to me, because I'd already learned a fair bit about what I did and didn't want in a therapist. For example, I don't particularly find it helpful when a therapist likes to give a lot of advice — I just prefer having space to talk things out without judgment. Some people, of course, appreciate a more straight-forward, solutions-based approach, but for me, it just doesn't really work.
Unfortunately, other than typing "I AM SENSITIVE ABOUT THIS PLEASE BE NICE," there isn't really a way to effectively convey that over text.
I was matched within a day with two different therapists — one named Karen, and another named Eryn. They were both licensed therapists, and both seemed pretty welcoming and open, which I figured was a good sign. While Betterhelp and Talkspace are two separate websites, they functioned in a similar manner: I could log into a private chat room (either on my laptop or via an app on my phone) and leave my therapist a message, and they'd get back to me with a response to keep the conversation going.
To begin, I explained to each of them a particularly stressful event that had been weighing on my mind a lot, and how I was having a lot of trouble letting go of it. Karen at Betterhelp was pretty quick at responding to my messages, which I appreciated, since I was eager to get started, so I unloaded the whole story onto her. I explained how I'd had a misunderstanding with a friend, and that it spiraled out into a big, stressful mess that I was now obsessing over — and, surprisingly, even writing it out in a text message felt pretty helpful. It reminded me of all the things I'd word-vomited to my first therapist in her office over the years: I could just put it all out there and then leave it behind me when our session was over, free of the burden.
I was feeling pretty optimistic about my newfound therapeutic alliance with Karen, but it wasn't long before I discovered one of the big drawbacks of text-based therapy. When you aren't chatting in real time, it can be hard to keep the flow of the conversation going, and you miss out on a lot of the non-verbal communication you'd normally have with in-person. Where an in-person therapist might have encouraged me to keep talking, or asked some specific questions based on what I was saying (or even just giving a few well-placed "uh huhs"), I felt like the text arrangement meant Karen had to offer more concrete answers and suggestions. Ones that, if I'm honest, I didn't particularly want.
At that moment, I immediately thought, online therapy is definitely not for me.
Since Karen and I had gotten off to a pretty good start, I was beginning to feel more comfortable opening up, and sharing some details that felt a little more sensitive about. Unfortunately, other than typing "I AM SENSITIVE ABOUT THIS PLEASE BE NICE," there isn't really a way to effectively convey that over text, and this time, Karen didn't seem to pick up on that. "Yeah," she wrote back a few hours later, "next time you might want to think about whether or not what you have to say is actually worth saying."
In all fairness, it was good advice, especially since I do have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth a fair bit. But when I read it, well, it kind of stung. Some people might appreciate that kind of honest feedback, but I like my honesty couched in a heavy dose of gentle kindness and empathy, and at that moment, I immediately thought, online therapy is definitely not for me.
Since I had already begun also chatting with Eryn, I made the decision to just cut ties with Karen. I felt kind of bad about that — I knew that a better thing to do would have been to discuss it with her, or perhaps even request a different therapist (something that both websites totally allow you to do), and I probably would have if I hadn't simultaneously signed up for Talkspace. But my one-week free trial of BetterHelp was coming to an end anyway, so in this instance, I figured I'd just go all in with Eryn and hope for the best.
I gave myself the rest of the day to think about that, to really stop and pay attention to all the negative stuff I was saying to myself throughout the day, and by the time I messaged her later that evening, it actually felt like a pretty big breakthrough.
A Good Fit
Once I started chatting with Eryn, I was surprised to find how much she reminded me of my old, beloved therapist — much more, in fact, that any of the other IRL therapists I'd seen. Even through her written messages, Eryn seemed to be trying to understand where I was coming from, and it felt like she had a lot of empathy, which were two things I felt like I'd had a hard time finding in other therapists. So it didn't take long before I started to really enjoy having her to talk to, even if all I was really doing was sending her a bunch of text messages and waiting for her to write back.
Another thing I really liked about chatting with Eryn is that, because I didn't have to write her back right away, I had time to think about some of the things she was saying. At one point, she noted my tendency towards rumination, which was something I hadn't even realized was such a huge part of my anxiety. I gave myself the rest of the day to think about that, to really stop and pay attention to all the negative stuff I was saying to myself throughout the day, and by the time I messaged her later that evening, it actually felt like a pretty big breakthrough.
I also realized what a huge advantage it was to be able to message her throughout the day, whenever I needed to. Because finding time to meet in person would really difficult for me at this point, the truth is that, since I'm not in desperate need of a therapist right now, I probably wouldn't end up actually going to see her on a regular basis if I could, even though I really liked talking to her. But the online arrangement actually worked really well with the position I'm in in my life right now— that is, super busy, but also interested in having someone to talk to — and I started to see how something like Talkspace or Betterhelp really does provide a great option to people who can't or won't access traditional therapy, but who also aren't requiring in-depth mental health support. And really, who couldn't benefit from having a therapist to chat to?
Running Its Course?
When I signed up for TalkSpace, I chose the monthly subscription option, which cost $128 (not too bad, considering that $128 wouldn't even cover the cost of one in-person session with any of the psychologists I'd tried). I'd only intended to stay for the month, specifically for the purpose of conducting this experiment, but since I liked Eryn so much, I started to consider staying on indefinitely, and using Talkspace as part of my network of tools I rely on to try and keep me from ever ending up as miserably depressed as I once was a few years ago.
But whether it was because I knew I'd have to cough up another $128, or because I'd already unloaded onto Eryn all the things that had been specifically bothering me, by the time the end of the month neared, I kind of felt like I didn't have much else to say. That, I realized, is the only difficulty of trying to access a kind of prophylactic therapy — trying to working with a therapist when you don't necessarily need to sometimes means that nothing is really wrong, and so sometimes, you don't want to actually talk about anything.
Right now, my membership with Talkspace is on hold. I'm not ready to commit to another month, but at the same time, I want to make sure I'm not just having a good week, and next week I'll wish I hadn't canceled (although I guess if that were to happen I could just sign up again). Having Eryn to talk to has been so nice, and I'm not quite sure I'd like to stop doing it, even if I am sure at this point that continuing to pay for the service would just be a nice bonus, as opposed to a very important investment in my own mental health.
A Good In-Between Option
After a month of trying online therapy, I think that there are some definite benefits. So often we wait to access help until things start to get really bad and the reality is that there really aren't that many options in the way of prevention. When I signed up, there were some things on my mind that were bothering me, but in general I was coping well. Talkspace allowed me to get those things out in the open proactively, on my own schedule, without having to spend lots of time and money trying to find someone I liked. So if you've been avoiding therapy because of any (or all) of those reasons, an online setup might be a great alternative.
But of course, chatting to the best therapist in the entire world on the internet still isn't going to be as therapeutic as actually seeing someone in person — especially if you're going through a really difficult time. Even though I like using Talkspace, I still see it as a temporary stop-gap: when my kids get a little older and it becomes easier for me to actually go see a therapist in person, I fully intend on doing that.