I decided to try out online therapy and I wasn’t even lucky enough to have my foray paid for by a women’s magazine!
As embarrassing as it is to say, an ad popped up on facebook and got me thinking online therapy might be for me. Let’s face it, I need therapy.
Though I haven’t progressed to slumping against a wall in a sterile room, I’m pretty much constantly in emotional turmoil. But since that emotional turmoil makes me stressed about having appointments and tight lipped about my feelings, in-person therapy is either mildly stressful or fully unsuccessful. I’m better in writing and I’m not in a desperate situation as I usually am when I finally find a therapist, so it seemed like a good time to try it out.
The top companies from my brief research seemed to be Talkspace and BetterHelp so I thought I’d try both! I signed up for BetterHelp right away because it has a 7-day free trial. They asked a bunch of typical questions and I was assigned a therapist in about 24 hours. I went back and forth on Talkspace a little more as they do not offer any sort of trial (the answer was that since a week of Talkspace therapy about equals one session they don’t think a trial could give you a real understanding of the service [this should have been my first warning sign]), but they did offer $25 off. Since $25 is the cost of one week, I figured I could use it as a free trial and then have an excuse to confront a company if they wouldn’t refund me the unused weeks later–I signed up the next day and got a therapist by the end of the day.
TL;DR: these services are therapy in the loosest sense of the word. It’s like sending emails to your really busy friends who responds with inspirational quotes. Which is even worse than talking to my real friends because I’d never have a friend who sent me inspirational quotes. The response times are long and the answers are brief, and it’s pulling teeth to go deeply into authentic cognitive behavioral therapy. Probably great for someone dealing with a breakup but not for someone with a diagnosed mental health condition.
For my specific experience…
I just felt super misled. Maybe my expectations were too high, but the services tout “therapy for how we live today,” with all their therapists’ credentials posted and talk of unlimited messaging from therapists ready to talk with you right now.
Well the therapist are real, but they are in no way available right now and pretty much never will be. I rarely got more than 2 messages a day, and usually only one of the messages would be “long”. Both companies advertise you can “write whenever you want!” “Sessions vary depending on the interaction between you and your counselor.” Whether I wrote a sentence or pages, there was no telling when I would get a response. By the time I heard back I had lost my train of thought and my passion for the issue. Or sometimes I kept sending additional messages as things came to mind and the therapist would write back and address the thing that really wasn’t a big deal. Other times they would misinterpret something and I’d have to (it felt like to me) waste an interaction clearing that up. There is a live chat option, but you have to schedule it, in my experience, at minimum a day ahead of time. I requested 3 live chats with 3 different therapists. One needed 4 days’ notice, one said anytime that day was fine and then never responded to my time, and another scheduled one for the next day, had an emergency, rescheduled, and never showed up. We finally talked 2 days later.
I brought this up with the therapists and customer service.
My BetterHelp therapist told me basically well you’re not writing enough to get anything done–most people treat this as a journal and write a ton and get one or two responses a week. A) That’s absurd. Why am I paying from $20-55 a week to have someone read my journal? B) There’s no B it just sounds better.
I started writing more and still just felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. I told her I really felt like I needed a live chat at least in response to my longer writings so we could dissect them. I didn’t get a response…I wrote back and said my subscription was ending and I hoped to hear from her before that and didn’t for 36 hours, at which point I cancelled and was offered another free week with a new therapist, which I took. Even less responsive.
Like the BetterHelp therapist, my TalkSpace responses were slow to come and for both of them it was glaringly obviously that this was a side job. Both of them said at different points, with a more apologetic tone from TalkSpace than BetterHelp, that they were busy with their jobs and couldn’t always be available to me. Well I understand that but also I’m paying for this service just like others are. When I contacted customer service about what I could expect from responses, BetterHelp did offer more time for my trial but TalkSpace said “your therapist is busy just like you!” If I’m waitressing as a 2nd job, I can’t tell my table their food is cold because I’m busy doing work from my 1st job!
If you really dig into the FAQs for each service you can see the fine print saying this service is in no way a substitute for in-person therapy, which is pretty much directly opposite their statements all over the main pages of the sites. The sites and customer service I talked to also say a week’s worth of chatting = one in-person session and most people need about 6 months to get anywhere.
The lack of responses makes each response seem more precious, so the biggest frustration was that most of the responses just didn’t cut it. I said right away that I’d been in therapy, I’d been medicated, and I have these issues and want to get to the bottom of them because that would make me feel more able to understand my feelings and address them.
Some of the responses I got were [paraphrased]:
can you catch yourself having negative thoughts and tell yourself not to have them?
if you spend time worrying you can’t smell the roses
is there really any point to identifying the source of your anxiety?
you shouldn’t be worried about time going by quickly, most people don’t have as much free time as you do.
I guess a silver lining is that I really got forceful with what I wanted and how wrong these perceptions were. But even so I don’t feel like it was productive to pay for a service that caused more stress than my additional issues. TalkSpace especially infuriated me because when I asked for a new therapist they told my current therapist I wasn’t happy and then I had to speak directly to her about changing, and since she was very nice and one of my main issues is disappointing people I felt so bad I stuck with her. A week later it still wasn’t going anywhere and even after talking to customer service there was no option of changing without involving the current therapist.
Both services were pretty much identical but if I had to choose I’d go with BetterHelp because of their far superior customer service. They checked in 3 days after I signed up, and when I said I wasn’t sure if I was satisfied they extended my subscription by almost a week. When I cancelled the last day, still not thrilled, they gave me another free week to try a new therapist. They are, however, more expensive than TalkSpace for shorter-term plans. I would never go so far as to say these are a scam but they overstate their efficacy and methods for sure.