By Sara Tiano
Inside and outside the foster care community, mental health is a pressing issue that impacts the lives of millions of Americans. In recent years, there has been a healthy trend toward facing this issue head on — encouraging people to seek help when they need it and to do away with the negative stigma that surrounds mental illness and its treatment.
But as we become, as a society, more open about addressing this, logistics remains a huge barrier that continues to prevent people from getting the help they need. Research has shown that 77 percent of U.S. counties have a “severe shortage” of licensed mental health practitioners. The lack is most notable in rural and low-income communities.
Many foster parents are acutely aware of this shortage. In addition to geographic access barriers, a 2014 study found that less than half of psychiatrists accepted Medicaid, the federal program that provides health coverage to most youth in foster care. Without insurance, therapy can cost hundreds of dollars per session.
Enter Silicon Valley. A rash of new app-based therapy and counseling options has cropped up in recent years, many claiming to make therapy more accessible and affordable. And despite skeptics who might dismiss this as a misguided millennial trend, a growing body of research is finding many of these services to be provably effective in addressing a number of mental health issues.
Phone-based delivery of therapy services might be particularly beneficial to youth in foster care. While placement changes often disrupt a youth’s relationship and progress with therapists and counselors, teletherapy can allow them to maintain continuity with their therapist no matter where they go.
Note, most of these services make clear that they are not appropriate for youth with severe mental health diagnoses. But for working through trauma, addressing anxiety and depression, strengthening relationships and the like, some of these services may hold benefit for your kid’s mental health and well-being.
- Talkspace, www.talkspace.com
Talkspace boasts unlimited access to a network of licensed therapists through text, video and voice messaging. For teens who spend hours every day on their phone, accessing therapy in this way could feel more natural and comfortable than braving a 50-minute session in a stranger’s office.
Talkspace’s therapists each have a minimum of 3,000 hours of clinical experience, as well as additional training in specific therapeutic models, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Experts assign users to a primary therapist after a conversation to identify specific therapy needs.
Tiered pricing options start at $49/week; all plans include unlimited monthly text, voice and video messaging with the therapist, allowing users to get help and advice in real time. The upgraded plans also incorporate live therapy sessions.
- 7 Cups, www.7cups.com
Offering both free and paid options, 7 Cups is an emotional support and counseling community where users can anonymously chat with trained “active listeners.” For a $150 monthly subscription fee, you can also connect with licensed therapists and social workers for unlimited chat therapy.
Users can search for listeners that have similar backgrounds or expertise around particular issues; each listener specifies whether they work with teens, adults or both. With listeners across the globe, 7 Cups offers services in 140 languages.
- SuperBetter, www.superbetter.com
This free app makes a game out of positive psychology and behavior change to help users battle anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
In the game, “allies” and “power-ups” — or easy positive actions that make you feel better — help you defeat “bad guys” — negative thoughts, habits or other barriers to your mental health goals — on your “quests” toward your “epic wins.”
The idea is that gamifying mental health goals helps users bring the same psychological strengths naturally expressed when playing games — like optimism, creativity, courage and determination — to their real lives.
SuperBetter was built by a professional game designer using tried-and-true methods for provoking positive emotions, and in two separate studies has shown to decrease anxiety and improve moods. This app does not provide licensed therapy services, though, so for some kiddos it might be best as a supplement to traditional or online therapy.
- LARKR, www.larkr.com
Billed as “traditional therapy minus the waiting room,” LARKR offers 50-minute on-demand therapy sessions via livestream video. A split-screen feature allows family members and others to join in — from wherever they are — for group therapy sessions. This could be especially important for youth who are geographically removed from their biological parents or have been separated from their siblings in care.
In addition to the teletherapy service, LARKR also offers free extras like guided meditations, mood journaling and daily suggestions to improve emotional health. Unlike other services which charge a monthly fee, LARKER has you pay as you go ($85 per 50-minute session) with no long-term commitment.
- Moodnotes, www.moodnotes.thriveport.com
This app combines journaling with the principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help users identify and correct negative thinking patterns.
Unlike most of the other options, Moodnotes doesn’t offer a direct connection to a therapist but at $4.99, it could be a budget-friendly way to incorporate mental health into your kid’s daily routine. At a designated time each day, the app asks you to rate your mood, and then goes through a series of questions to help elucidate the cause of your current mental state.
Using the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, the app helps users identify different types of negative thinking (like blaming and fortune-telling) that might contribute to negative behavior or overall anxiety. The app tracks your moods over time, allowing you to see patterns, and offers new perspectives on how to avoid negative thinking “traps.”
Everyone’s mental health journey is different, but these days we have more tools than ever to help us address our issues and be our healthiest, happiest selves. These are just a sampling of what’s out there, so explore the options and find what works best for you and your family.
*Note: These apps are not appropriate for youth in crisis. If you think your child is in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sara Tiano is a Los Angeles-based general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change covering child welfare and juvenile justice. As a freelance reporter focused on these issues, her work has previously appeared in WitnessLA, Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.