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Business is booming for therapy apps, but what really works?

Jasmine Garsd Apr 15, 2020
In the era of shelter in place, online therapy has become the norm. Pixabay

Business is booming for therapy apps, but what really works?

Jasmine Garsd Apr 15, 2020
In the era of shelter in place, online therapy has become the norm. Pixabay

Even before the pandemic, online therapy and therapy apps were booming. With the stresses of the pandemic, companies offering mental health services are finding a surge in new interest.

Six years ago, Jennifer, from Milwaukee, started therapy to treat her anxiety — in person. Even as apps for mental health started popping up online, she says she’s never wanted to do online treatment.

“Absolutely not. I feel like a big part of therapy is being able to see someone and being in the same room,” she said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit her therapist moved their sessions to video. As soon as she can, Jennifer wants to go back to meeting her therapist in person. But, for now, a few weeks in, video works.

Cheryl Aguilar (Photo courtesy of Aguilar)

And it has to: In the era of shelter in place, online therapy has become the norm.

For therapist Cheryl Aguilar, the transition has been a piece of cake. Back in 2015, the organization she worked with got a grant to do free video therapy sessions for Spanish-speaking immigrants. She kept doing it when she opened her own practice.

For many patients, Aguilar said, “this is a safer way to feel connected. We have seen that highly stigmatized communities, like the LGBTQ community that we were serving in Washington, D.C., felt more comfortable doing it this way.”

With a global pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis and uncertainty, it’s no surprise that remote therapy is on the rise. 

And an increasing amount of apps claim to be rising to the occasion. TalkSpace lets you connect with a licensed therapist. They’ve seen a 65% increase in the last month or so.

Screenshot via Wysa

TalkSpace, Better Help, and Pride Counseling promise to match clients to online therapists for as little as $40 a week.

That’s a lot less than in-person therapy, especially for those without insurance. But for many Americans facing deep economic uncertainty, that’s still a lot of money.

There’s also been a surge of users with COVID-19-related stress on apps like Wysa, an artificial intelligence therapy platform. Wysa offers video sessions with human therapists; the basic free plan lets you text a bot, in the form of an animated penguin, which gives mental health exercises and tips.

Still, artificial intelligence is where some in the mental health community draw the line. Therapist Katherine O’Connor says a bot can surely help with wellness tips, but “the human connection is, I think, one of the most healing for change and growth.”

If you can afford that right now.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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