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Could Your Next Therapist Be Online?

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Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
"Hi Tracy," I type into my phone with both thumbs.

A message appears on my screen in a purple box, next to a circle with a woman’s smiling face in it: "Hi Kate, I’ve been a counsellor for over 15 years I am here to support you what is troubling you."

My new therapist is not a fan of punctuation, it seems. No matter, this is online therapy; it’s about convenience, so I can do without commas if Tracy can.

"I’ve been having some pretty intense thoughts about restricting my eating," I type into an empty box, which appears on my screen in a white speech bubble. "Self-destructive thoughts seem to visit me when something’s not quite right in my life. But I’m doing so well at the moment, I don’t really understand why I’m hating on my body so much."

"Have you had these thoughts before" Tracy writes, no question mark.

"Yep," I write. "I had anorexia as a teenager and even though I’ve been recovered for years, sometimes I still get the thoughts."

I’m sitting on my own sofa, wearing pyjamas, eating dinner and scrolling through Twitter. In my great multi-tasking life, it makes complete sense to me, to fit a therapy session in between my other activities. Why haven’t we thought of this before? It’s genius.

"Tell me more" Tracy bids. And I do. I tell her about my food-related neuroses, my ongoing life with bipolar disorder and a slight conflict I’ve been having with an ex-boyfriend. This whole therapy thing is not new to me; I’ve done it many times, seen many therapists. My mama is a psychotherapist, even. But I haven’t tried it online before.

I’m one of the first 200 people to use TalkLife Connect, a service that launched online in the UK this year. It’s a messaging app that matches you with a certified therapist for talk therapy – only, in this case, it’s not vocal. It’s currently available on web or phone as well as through the messaging app Slack. Moments after you sign up (it’s $99 – £76 – a month but I’m on the free 7-day trial), you’re matched with an industry-certified counsellor. You chat for a bit and, after that, you can message them at any time of day and they’ll try to respond as soon as they can. If they’re online at the same time as you, you can volley comments back and forth for about half an hour. And like me, you can be doing whatever other activities you want at the same time.

The world is changing, times are changing, so the support we offer needs to as well.

Jennifer Russell, Head of Operations at TalkLife
"It’s all about normalising people’s feelings. I feel massively passionate about encouraging people to talk about their feelings as a normal part of their day," Jennifer Russell, Head of Operations at TalkLife, tells me. Jennifer’s background is in counselling and suicide prevention, but she’s felt for a while that something was missing; that her industry hadn’t quite caught up with the way we live.

"The world is changing, times are changing, so the support we offer needs to as well. There’s always a place for face-to-face therapy but there are so many people who just won’t reach out for help. This app is for them."

TalkLife Connect is the new service from parent company TalkLife. It actually began as a social network for people to talk about their anxieties. TalkLife is an app with 300,000 users globally, having 20,000 conversations a day. But that’s a peer support network, with the depressed leading the depressed. Users, mainly young people by virtue of its medium, can log in, write a message about their mood and then connect to someone else to talk about it. The idea is lovely – and it works as long as it’s operating in kindness. But ultimately, Jennifer tells me, it became clear that some people needed professional therapists to talk to.

"That’s where TalkLife Connect was born," she said. "We have 24/7 moderation so it’s a safe environment for people to talk and every message is encrypted to the highest degree so it’s private. Our therapists comply with the same standard safeguarding principles as offline therapists do but we’re not crisis support. If we’re worried about someone’s safety, we refer them to a crisis service like Samaritans or the NHS, or contact ourselves if that’s needed."

So, it’s safe, private, convenient, and doesn't cost the earth. But as so often happens, the strength of a service like this is also its greatest weakness: By its very convenience, therapy-by-app feels casual. It feels like Kik or, for the slightly older among us, MSN Messenger. Talking this way can be so seamlessly woven into your daily activities, it’s easy to let its significance slide. Should we really be watching Netflix, swiping on Tinder, checking emails and attending to our mental health, all at the same time? Is it only truly effective if we’re able to switch off everything else?

That could all be true. As I type-type-type my thoughts away to Tracy on the app, I do actually feel good. I feel comfortable with her because, actually, she’s just a professionally trained and responsible person prompting me to talk about my feelings. There are no wrong answers and no obligations to bare your soul.

One in four of us in the UK lives with a mental illness. In an ideal situation, that quarter of the population would have a mental health support team made up of their family, their GP, their therapist and perhaps a psychiatrist. But therapy is for everyone; therapy is for four out of four of us in the UK. You don’t need a diagnosis to justify speaking to someone like Tracy. All you need is a set of feelings that are troubling you and, now, an internet connection.

"I figured maybe talking to someone about this would help," I type to Tracy, about 15 minutes into our first chat.

"And has it" she asks, no question mark required.

"You know what? Yeah. It has," I write.

Telling a highly qualified stranger your innermost dangerous thoughts actually does help. The simple power of talking to another human being is that it can makesyou feel less alone. Some days that person will be one of my best friends on WhatsApp, other days it’s my family on Skype. But today, it’s Tracy.

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