Lie down anywhere that suits: the world is now your therapist’s couch. A wide range of apps now deliver mental-health care straight to your smartphone.
With PTSD Coach, users can discreetly screen themselves and learn more about the disorder. Moodnotes keeps track of emotional swings and offers new perspectives on a situation. And on Talkspace, for a weekly fee, users can anonymously text a therapist any time and receive a response within the next few hours.
More than 150,000 people have tried Talkspace so far, says co-founder Oren Frank. For nearly half of them, it’s their first brush with therapy. “Therapy becomes a daily experience, much more in tune with what happens to you on a daily basis,” he says.
Next week, another app in this vein debuts: TruReach Health, offering free lessons in cognitive behavioural therapy, a treatment that teaches people to recognise and alter negative patterns in their thoughts or behaviours.
Each lesson takes the form of a short animated video. In between, users practise what they’ve learned by scribbling down their thoughts in a digital journal. The app will be tested in a clinical setting at Royal Ottawa hospital in Canada and in trials involving students at a nearby university.
TruReach Health was created by Jeff Perron, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa. He says the app isn’t meant to replace face-to-face therapy, but to provide a substitute for those who don’t have access to it – whether for fear of social stigma or simply the expense.
According to the National Alliance on Medical Illness, a non-profit campaign group in Arlington, Virginia, 59 per cent of adults in the US with a mental health condition did not receive relevant services in the last year.
“I love psychologists. If everyone could go and see one, then we’d all be better off, but that’s just not possible,” says Perron. “We’re giving someone a tool because, 99 times out of 100, they just don’t have access to face-to-face therapy.”
Computer-based therapy may not be as outlandish as it may sound. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends certain cognitive behavioural therapy programs for people with mild to moderate depression or panic and phobia.
In some situations, a machine might actually be more effective than a human. A study published last year looked at how participants interacted with a virtual versus a human therapist.
In fact, all 154 subjects were using Ellie, a virtual avatar designed to screen people for psychological problems, but only half knew this: the other half were told that the system was controlled by a human operator.
The people who knew it was a virtual system were less afraid to disclose personal information, less likely to manage what they said, and more likely to reveal feelings of sadness.
“When you’re faced with a human, all these social processes activate. You’re more likely to cooperate with a person, more likely to apply racial stereotypes, more likely to feel judged,” says Jonathan Gratch at the University of Southern California, who led the research. With a computer, those processes shut off, and you can be yourself a little more.
Artificial intelligence could be involved too. In May, Talkspace teamed up with the engineers behind IBM’s Watson system to find ways to take advantage of the wealth of message data Talkspace has generated since its launch in 2012. They hope to build an algorithm that can match new users to the therapist whose personality suits them best.
They are also collaborating on an even more ambitious project: a kind of crowdsourced therapist. This program would look at what a user types into the system, comb through Talkspace’s archives and then present the therapist with a suggested response.
“If it can be done, it will be amazing,” says Frank. “This is a very teeny tiny first step.”