Talkspace is offered to some Nevada residents to address limited mental health treatment availability.
In 2020, Reno, Nevada Mayor, Hillary Schieve, announced the city would spend $1.3 million in coronavirus relief funds on online therapy through Talkspace. The proposal gave every resident in Reno free access (with the exception of young children), and was meant to fill a gap where services were otherwise unavailable. Schieve indicated she wanted to do something to address the ongoing mental health effects of those social distancing and forced into isolation.
“It was extremely risky, and politicians hate to be the first one to go out there,” Schieve said. “But I’m not afraid.”
However, the plan, though made with good intentions, was not as well-received by the mental health community as the mayor predicted. Local therapists voiced their concerns, including that the platform relies mostly on text interaction, unlike traditional therapy, as well as live video sessions. Thus, the format seems, to most, counterintuitive to easing isolation concerns.
“There’s a lot of really amazing, important work and ideas within our local community,” Erin Snell, founder of the local suicide-prevention center Rise Wellness, said. “And then we have the politicians who decide, you know, ‘we think this is the best way to manage that,’ and really they haven’t asked anybody that’s in a real position that could inform what that might look like.”
Many licensed therapists are skeptical of the quality of care delivered by Talkspace and other startups with similar services. And, in Reno, they also say the short-term deal won’t have a lasting impact. Supporters of Talkspace, however, contend the app is both effective and closes the treatment gap, providing support for those who otherwise are unable to take advantage of traditional services. In many communities, therapists couldn’t meet demand even before Covid-19, they’ve argued, and conventional services can mean high costs of care and insurance setbacks.
“Talkspace is not going after therapists,” Mark Hirschhorn, Talkspace’s president and chief operating officer said. “What Talkspace is doing is providing a very, very essential need that has been unmet in the marketplace as a result of the either shortage of available therapists or the inability of individuals to access those therapists.”
Founded in 2012, Talkspace makes finding a therapist simple by auto-connecting users with providers after signing up for the app. From there, therapy proceeds over text, audio, and video messaging. Premium plans include weekly or monthly live video chat sessions, while standard text-messaging is also available to fill the gap.
Schieve lost both her brother and her sister within weeks of each other in 2020 and started calling around to several local therapists seeking help. Frustrated she was unable to get an appointment for weeks, she discovered Talkspace.
“I realized that even the mayor of your own city could not get comprehensive therapy services,” Schieve said last year. “I was just thinking to myself – how can this be in a time when so many people are feeling isolated and they’re struggling?”
In all, more than 200,000 residents are eligible for the free service and Schieve maintains that the goal is not to replace traditional therapy. She also said Talkspace isn’t meant to be a substitute for people who need more intensive treatment.