Can the Web make mental-health treatment more mainstream?

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On discussion forums across the Internet, people openly share their stresses and anxieties with total strangers with similar experiences. But because of cost, convenience and maybe denial, a significant proportion of those who could be helped by treatment don’t seek it, according to mental-health studies.

Enter Talktala, a NY-based startup that believes it can bring counseling to more consumers with a Web platform that provides anonymity and more affordable prices.

Launched with $650,000 in seed funding from angel investors in New York and Israel, Talktala says it provides a secure online platform for people to join topic-based group therapy sessions led by certified therapists. If users want to remain anonymous, they can participate via text or audio. They also have the option to participate as themselves with Web video.

“In a way, it’s a hybrid between traditional therapy and support groups,” said founder Oren Frank, adding that it’s also like an “introduction” to therapy for the 35 million people that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration estimates could benefit from mental-health treatment but don’t receive it. In the week since its launch, Frank said it has attracted 800 patients and 150 certified therapists.

Because the sessions are split among a handful of people, the price is more affordable than a traditional session for each user, but therapists earn the same amount online as they’d make offline. Most sessions cost $9.99 for an hour, although bigger-name therapists have the option to charge more.

Frank is an advertising executive (formerly global creative officer for MRM Worldwide) and his co-founder wife, Roni Frank, was a software developer before returning to graduate school for psychoanalysis. But they developed the site in consultation with psychologists, including Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford and a well-regarded author. The site, which is in beta, isn’t as clean-looking as other design-driven contemporary sites, but it does provide an accessible environment that could attract consumers intimidated by traditional treatment.

Talktala isn’t the first to test a platform for Web-based therapy. In 2009, BreakThrough, an online service that let patients search for certified mental-health professionals and schedule appoints conducted via chat, email, phone or a custom HIPAA-compliant video system, was selected to be part of the TechCrunch50.  According to Angel List, the company has attracted investors such as former PayPal executive Keith Rabois and Invite Media’s Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg and was part of Stanford’s StartX accelerator. For the moment, it only offers therapists in California but has partnered with Blue Shield of California and Magellan.

A recent article in ComputerWorld also documented the rise of Web-based therapy, citing the development of Web video technology, better security and broadband as reasons behind the trend.

The increase in startups that allow professionals in other fields to share their expertise online — such as online course platform Udemy and health network Healthtap that lets doctors answer patient questions online — also suggests some potential for Web-based therapy solutions.

But despite the growing interest in the field, questions still remain. When asked about liability concerns, Frank said the website only works with certified professionals who have information about the patients and a way to reach emergency contacts if they believe a patient is in any immediate danger. But one could imagine that lawsuit-leery professionals might be reluctant to join the site. Consumers might also worry about security and the possibility that their anonymity could be compromised.

Also, consumers already have access to other free mental-health consultations online, such as PsychCentral’s Ask the Therapist service and other online support groups and discussion threads. John Grohol, psychologist and founder of PsychCentral, said it’s unknown how much of a consumer demand there is for tele-psychiatry services that consumer services need to pay for directly. But, he added that Talktala’s lower price point and focus on appealing to everyday people with everyday problems is a move in the right direction.

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