Online therapy is the affordable, accessible answer to better mental health
Siri, solve all my life problems, please
Whoever said talk is cheap never went for therapy. Depending on which city you live in, it can cost you between ₹700 to ₹4,500 per session. “Dude, just get an app,” standard millennial response to most situations, in this case from an acquaintance when I asked them about mental health care in the city. In a couple of WiFi seconds (thanks Hedy Lamarr) I had my very own pocket therapist.
Texting with a perky little AI cartoon penguin is nothing like any medical experience I’d had.
I’d heard of meditation apps, but I was sceptical at how useful it would be for mental health struggles.
Sure we all want to cycle around with therapist Shah Rukh Khan while the Goan breeze blows away our problems.
But the steep costs — and the tauba tauba surrounding mental illness — puts therapy low on our to-do list.
Government surveys note about 4,000 psychiatrists in India. On the other hand, 7.5 per cent of over a billion Indians struggle with their mental health. Evening those odds are professionals and companies who use technology to help patients, making therapy more affordable (free even) and accessible.
When AI chatbots become life coaches
No, Siri is not taking over your life. Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots have more of a human touch in this context. Woebot and Wysa are among the most popular self-help apps.
Wysa was created by a team of 15 people including psychologists, designers and developers. They also have a team of Wysa coaches, professionals whom you can reach out to, if the AI “pocket penguin” isn’t enough, for $30/month (₹2,150 approx.).
All I needed was to input a username and Wysa’s machine learning took over the rest.
With a chatbot, inbuilt exercises in mindfulness, meditation and even 5-minute workout sessions for a quick burst of energy – the app seemed like an all-in-one dream.
It felt easier talking about emotions and experiences when you know the ‘person’ on the other end of the line is fake. A week into it, the app worked as a sounding board and life coach. Plus, you’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings here.
“These mental health apps mimic Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques practised in-clinic by professionals,” says psychologist Urvashi Bhatia. “They’d be helpful for low-to-moderate struggles and ailments, this can be depression, anxiety, even OCD.”
The bots learn more as you progress. They will teach you stress-management practices, negative thought analysis, behaviour correction and other pattern recognition methods based on empirical evidence for users.”
Alternative platforms for a shoulder to lean on
A year out of college, Drishti Gupta and Bani Singh run Now&Me, a peer-to-peer online network. The platform serves as an avenue to vent — release your frustrations when nobody else around you seems to understand what you’re going through, and you might find someone at the opposite end of the world saying “Me too!”
“It’s cathartic. You’re not bottling up everything inside. The anonymity gives people a sense of safety too. You might find someone from a different country with similar experiences, so you don’t feel so alone anymore,” says Gupta.
Forums aren’t the place for me but just scrolling through the posts on Now&Me, it’s apparent that it’s filled with empathy and listening ears.
The team shares resources with users regarding mental health professionals in their vicinity.
“We’re in talks with psychologists and working to bring them on board too. We want to create the mental health yellow pages and share it with everyone,” Gupta adds.
Online therapy sessions from your sofa
The benefits of online therapy are clear for clinical psychologist Prachi Vaish. There’s flexibility with timings and no physical commute.
“It saves people time and energy, and most importantly, the stigma. How do you look for a good therapist? This isn’t something most people can ask friends or colleagues as they would for a physician,” says Vaish.
Another factor that draws people to online therapy sessions is the feeling of a safe distance. “We insist on knowing the identity of the client for safety purposes, but there’s still a distance between client and therapist. Whether it’s a session over chat, phone call or video chat, they feel safe especially if they’re talking about something traumatic or embarrassing.”
Back in 2009, mental health was rarely spoken about, and an online platform for therapy sessions practically unheard of. Vaish still set up Hope Network, a first in the field at the time, providing online psychological services.
“I’ve had people with social anxiety and trauma who are very nervous to talk verbally, so they started with texting, eventually graduating to phone calls.”
Online therapy sessions are serving well in tier II and tier III regions where there’s minimal access to mental health care but everyone has a smartphone and a 3G connection.
Research studies into the effectiveness of online therapy have found it to be on par with the clinic treatment for most conditions and stressful situations.
Vaish does stress that it doesn’t apply to all. “There are certain conditions and situations that are absolutely not suited for online therapy. Like severe psychosis, the experience of delusions and hallucinations and people who are extremely suicidal when they come in for help.”
For such cases she refers clients to professionals they should meet in person, keeping a database at hand.
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