Mental health therapy online causes debate

New startup hopes to make tele-therapy more feasible

ORLANDO, Fla. - The latest statistics from the US Department of Health and Human Services show that around 10.5 million adults have an unmet need for mental health treatment or counseling.

Nearly half of them never went to a mental health professional at all.

The majority of those people said they either could not afford it, they did not have time for it, or they did not know where to go for treatment. 

It's part of the reason that the idea of tele-mental health has been gaining traction in the mental health profession.  Instead of having to find time to drive to a therapist's office, clients can seek therapy with a webcam and a computer.

But long-time mental health professionals like Wendy Crane are cautiously optimistic about the idea.

"It's not that we don't want to be able to help people, obviously, and we want to be able to get to people who can't get to traditional therapy so that's something our profession is being faced with," said Crane, a licensed mental health counselor specializing in couples and family therapy in Lake Mary.

Crane said the biggest difficulty with treating patients online is the way their licenses work.  Because she is only licensed in the state of Florida, it would not be ethical or legal for her to treat a patient over the internet who resides in another state.

A quick internet search will turn up a handful of sites that offer online therapy services through text or video chat platforms. 

"Because of the way our licenses work, it's making this global online accessibility that doesn't work in our profession because we are bound by our state," said Crane.

But a new start up called TalkSession is adhering to state licensing laws while helping people find treatment online.

"I would say the main difference between TalkSession and any other site is that for the first time we are bringing the best therapists online," said Melissa Thompson, the CEO and founder of Talk Session.

Thompson left a job on Wall Street to start the company after going through a divorce and seeing firsthand the access issues with mental healthcare.

"Everyone has problems, not everyone gets help, and when you want to get help how do you get the right help at the right time," said Thompson.

Currently, the site is only available for therapists and clients in New York.  Eventually it will expand throughout the nation, going first to cities and states with major hospital centers.

Thompson believes Talk Session will be operating pretty much nationwide within a few years.

She claimed the site uses a HIPAA compliant video system so that privacy of the client is completely safe. 

Skype, which many therapists currently use to talk to existing clients, is not HIPAA compliant. 

On Talk Session, the conversation is not archived or recorded so it happens and it goes away.  In addition, Thompson said that providers are forced to change their passwords frequently to ensure safety.

The key to Talk Session's success may be the unique therapist client matching algorithm.

"It's like OK Cupid for therapy," said Thompson.

Potential clients are asked 15 questions to help match them with a therapist. It is the first and only site that lets people search for a medical professional based on specific need rather than location alone.

"Finding the right match and the right fit between client and therapist is extremely important that's what's going to make the therapy successful," said Crane, who liked this component of the site.

However, Thompson and Crane disagree on the benefits of therapy in an office versus online.

"Patients are willing to share more over video than they are in a physician's office," said Thompson.

But Crane said she feels her office becomes her clients safe haven, where they feel free to speak openly about their issues. 

"There's so many non-verbal cues you get in an office that you can't get online, you can't get even in a Skype session," she said.

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