TalkSession: Mental Health Care for the Digital Age

By Ben Feuerherd 04/18/13

Extending access, giving patients power and providing personally matched practitioners are the goals of an exciting new website.

Melissa Thompson, Talksession's founder and
CEO, with the panel
Photo: Michelle McSwain

TalkSession, a website that is currently rolling out its launch, is an innovative platform for online mental health care. How providers should keep up with the digital age, and how they can use technology to benefit patients, were among the issues discussed by a panel at an event in honor of the site this week, in the majestic surroundings of Columbia University's Low Memorial Library.

Talksession uses a unique algorithm to find the most suitable psychiatrist or therapist for people seeking mental health care, connecting patient and professional. The relationship can then proceed in person or online, via one-on-one video chat counseling—which will eventually be available 24/7. TalkSession currently boasts 50 mental health specialists, covering a range of areas of expertise: Psychosomatic Medicine, CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), Learning Disabilities, Psychopharmacology, Psychoanalysis, Psycho-oncology, Consult-Liason, Child & Adolescent, Reproductive Psychopharmacology, Women's Issues and more.

“The digital landscape has changed the face of everything. Psychiatry is going to have to keep up with that...To turn a blind eye would be negligent.” 

For the site's founder and CEO, Melissa Thompson, it’s all about extending access to care: “80 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals,” she wrote in her successful grant application to GE Healthymagination and StartUp Health. “Vulnerable populations—such as deaf patients, individuals with chronic physical health conditions and those who are too ill to travel—face even more exceptional access issues.”

As many as six in 10 people with substance abuse problems also have a co-occurring mental disorder, so many addicts could benefit from TalkSession's primary services. And according to Thompson, TalkSession could help prevent relapse, by providing certain aspects of treatment whenever there's a computer nearby. “While TalkSession is by no means a perfect replacement for in-patient rehabilitation,” she told The Fix, “it likely can increase the probability of sobriety, as it will allow a bit of that community to go home with the patient, hopefully curbing environmental triggers of relapse.”

TalkSession also seeks to address the stigmatization of those seeking help for mental disorders—including addiction. “TalkSession's technology will allow people to make that step towards wellness by lowering the barrier to entry with stigma and/or motivational issues,” said Thompson.

“The digital landscape has changed the face of everything,” Dr. Greg Dillion, a New York psychiatrist who is one of TalkSession's specialists, told The Fix prior to the panel discussion at Columbia. “Psychiatry is going to have to keep up with that...To turn a blind eye to it would be negligent.” 

Four mental health care specialists and a technology consultant took part in the discussion—Dr. Kelly Posner, founder of the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment at Columbia University; Susannah Calahan, New York Times bestselling author; Dr. Lloyd Sederer, Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health; Steve Lindseth, a specialist in web start-ups; and Dr. Lori Melichar, Senior Economist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Dillion moderated.

Dr. Sederer said that online access to mental health care is necessary due to the sheer number of people who need such services. He explained that under the new legislation, “60 million people will become potential candidates for mental health care.” The digital platform of TalkSession will hopefully extend access to care and compensate for this influx in patients. When preparing for this influx, “technology is going to have to be a friend,” he said.

For Lindseth, it’s about reaching consumers with a positive health message. The main question that needs to be answered about TalkSession, he told The Fix, is: “Does it make healthcare more accessible for more people?” He sees TalkSession as a way to “market health care in a way that consumers will buy.” Furthermore, because healthcare providers are “competing for consumers” with companies that are “marketing bad things,” TalkSession will hopefully lead to people “modifying behavior in ways that will lead to health,” he added. The web is a place where health care needs a strong presence, according to Lindseth. Why? “Consumers are on Internet.”

Dr. Posner emphasized the value of allowing patients to play a part in choosing their therapist. Ensuring that “the patient has some agency in this decision,” is another of Talksession's strengths, she said.

Of course, the new site—which shares an office with The Fix in New York—isn't seeking to eliminate conventional therapy. Rather, the intention is to facilitate its growth. “In circumstances when a patient is able to seek a mental health professional in person,” Thompson notes, “TalkSession aims to facilitate that match and offer technology to supplement and enhance that relationship, not replace it.”

Ben Feuerherd is an editorial intern for The Fix, whose work has also appeared in Salon, The National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet.

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Benjamin Feuerherd is a city reporter at the New York Post. He has previously worked for The Daily Beast and NBC. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter