If you’re tuned in to mental health trends in any capacity, you’ve probably noticed that app therapy is having a moment. Yes, it's true: In addition to finding dates and friends through your smartphone, you can also get 24/7 access to a therapist. But instead of talking to them, you text them.
In a lot of ways, there’s something liberating about what feels like a more casual form of therapy. Talk therapy often requires annoying phone calls to your insurance company, carving out time you don’t have for appointments, and a little bit of hesitation—because regardless of how far we think we’ve come with mental health, there’s still a stigma around seeing a "shrink."
But is text therapy actually as effective as talk therapy, if it’s effective at all? Here’s what the experts think.
Therapists suggest making an effort to get to therapy.
In 2019, we love electronic communication. But just as texting your friend can’t replace in-person interactions, New York-based therapist Alison Stone doesn’t believe text therapy is an adequate replacement for in-person therapy. "Too much gets lost in translation: Tone, body language, laughter, sadness, etc.,” she says. “It's also difficult to do deep work via text, because most of the treatment methods simply require techniques that are facilitated in person.”
Meet the Expert
Alison Stone, LCSW is a New York-based holistic psychotherapist who specializes in helping individuals manage anxiety, navigate transitions, and thrive in their relationships. She received her undergraduate degree from Emory University and her masters degree in social work from New York University. Prior to opening her private practice, she spent six years working in outpatient addiction and mental health clinics.
She adds that a lot of the healing that occurs through therapy is in being witnessed, cared for, and truly seen by another person. “Texting puts a barrier in place, preventing this from happening on a deep level.” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, also warns texting may pose a threat to privacy on both ends. "Current HIPPA laws are not compliant with this type of communication," she says.
Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, vice president of clinical outreach for Newport Academy echoes the importance of nonverbal communication in the therapy process. “The client can receive a more personalized care experience and benefit from a true therapeutic relationship,” she explains.
Stone adds that while text therapy could take the intimidation factor out of therapy, one of the advantages of traditional therapy is getting out of your comfort zone. “If you're intimidated by therapy, chances are, conquering this fear could help you in other areas of your life—i.e. learning to be more vulnerable—that make it well worth it,” she says.
...But they can admit there are a few perks.
Both Stone and Wilson agree: Text therapy is better than no therapy at all. So if that’s what works for you, go for it. “Ease of access and affordability are huge,” Stone says. “Most of us are already overworked or burnt out, and sometimes the logistics of a weekly therapy appointment are a legitimate barrier to getting care. Text therapy is convenient, more affordable, and does not require a time commitment.” She adds that if someone has a very specific goal in mind, text therapy can be sufficient. “It’s possible that if someone is looking for more of a 'coach', or someone to keep them accountable to a specific, tangible goal, that text therapy can be enough.”
There’s solid research app therapy's effectiveness.
If you’ve dipped your toes in text therapy or are thinking about it, chances are you’ve heard of Talkspace, a popular platform that matches you with a therapist who will get back to you five days a week via their app. Amy Cirbus, a therapist at Talkspace, believes there isn’t one therapeutic approach that works for everyone. “It's about finding the right fit for the person,” she says. “Patients choosing to get treatment online are receiving the same standard of care they might receive in face to face, simply through a different modality. For some people it makes more sense to go into an office. For others, online makes more sense.”
Beyond “making more sense” (Cirbus also cites issues like cost, stigma, and scheduling), she adds that online treatment is equally viable and works well for the vast majority of patients who utilize it—and she has the research to back up this bold statement (see here, here, and here).
While the jury may still be out on whether text therapy can really replace talk therapy, there does seem to be one obvious consensus: Text or app therapy is better than no therapy at all. So if that works for you, by all means—go for it.