by Kat Black
“Small steps take you the furthest.”
“Making a big life change is pretty scary. But know what’s even scarier? Regret.”
“It’s not about the circumstances, but rather what you are made of.”
These are quotes from a bot named “Noni” and a human being with one active listening course under her belt. Who (or what) said which? Sometimes on online therapy sites, it can be difficult to tell.
I spoke to both Noni the Bot and active listener “fancifulBraveheart71” when I joined
7 Cups, a popular online therapy service. In a country of interminable NHS waiting lists where one in four have a mental illness (according to mental health charity Mind), more and more people in the UK are turning to online services like BetterHelp or Talkspace as affordable and time-efficient alternatives.
But can chat-based sessions with a mixed bag of unqualified listeners, some licensed professionals and the occasional well-intentioned bot ever measure up to the rapport developed over time with “IRL” counselors?
Mining my past for a time when I needed but had no access to therapy, I posed as a younger version of myself on 7 Cups to find out if e-counseling could be a feasible replacement for face-to-face therapy.
Here’s how it works: users have the option to either chat for free with a live listener or sign up for a free trial with a paid therapist.
The site provides no information about the cost of the full therapy subscription but after doing some research online, I found it costs £112.56 per month.
I signed up for the trial as “Kaye,” an English as a Second Language teacher who had just gone through a break-up.
After a series of rapid-fire questions about my mental health – a bot named Sophia found me a therapist named Dr Brown within five minutes.
Sophia directed me to a generic intake form sent by Dr Brown, which informed me that our “sessions” would take the form of a chat correspondence: “I am here for you to message day or night whenever you are needing to talk. However, I will typically respond once or twice per day Monday-Friday.”
Next, a different bot (Noni) asked if I would like to be connected with a live listener in the meantime. She referred me to “GirlWithaHelping Hand,” who listened to me vent about my “break-up” for about ten minutes before signing off abruptly.
I asked Noni for another listener and she proceeded to inundate me with “fun and uplifting” pictures, i.e. Gandhi and Mother Teresa quotes superimposed on images of rock climbers and landscapes. She then introduced me to the much more compassionate faithfulBraveheart71, who advised me to love myself and follow my heart.
What does a professional counsellor say about 7Cups?
I ask Jolie Jennings, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) based in Texas, USA to evaluate Dr Brown’s intake form and my conversations with the live listeners. She says that 7 Cups is “better than nothing” but that the sessions resembled “therapy lite,” with a chin-up mentality that smacks of life-coaching.
She emphasises that the listeners relied heavily on “Have you tried …?” questions (such as “Have you tried making new friends?”) that imply listeners may not be working hard enough to get better.
“It was pretty generic,” she says of the intake form. “My concern is that they’re not going to delve into the real issue — they’re going to coach you with positivity. This is person-centered therapy, where you just kind of reflect back what the person just said to you.
“It can take a long time to get to the core issue. Part of person-centered therapy is the belief that the clients innately have the ability to heal themselves. I like that, but I think that sometimes it takes much more than just surface suggestions.”
She also adds that for people who are in crisis or suicidal, online services can do little more than refer them to their local emergency room– which may expose them to unnecessary risks.
“Real training on how to help someone who’s suicidal makes the hospital unnecessary because you can work with that issue right in the office. I’ve never had to call someone to get them transferred. We can work through those suicidal urges– they don’t want to kill themselves, they’re just desperate.”
A 23 year-old student who wishes to remain anonymous says she sought e-counseling for severe bulimia due to shame and lack of funds. She says that though it can be a necessary stopgap, online therapy requires too much self-discipline to provide immediate help to someone in crisis.
“They make it sound ideal. I’m not saying they’re lying, but when you feel really desperate and helpless and you don’t know how to help yourself, and you get this program that you can download that says ‘stats have shown that after 8 weeks you will be better,’ it’s kind of like – wow, in 8 weeks, without telling anyone, without paying anything, I can be better. It does sound like the dream, but it’s much harder than it sounds.”
What impressions have I taken away from my brief life as “Kaye”? E-counseling can be a useful complement or precursor to face-to-face therapy, particularly for those who seek instant connection but are strapped for means and access.
But though it may be touted as a shortcut to better mental health, findings suggest that – where long-term improvement is concerned –it’s still more advisable to take the scenic route.
Featured Image : Screenshot of a motivational message sent by the Noni Bot