Use free mental health therapy platforms, but with caution. Here’s why

Unlike traditional therapy, free therapy apps and websites tend to rely on untrained individuals for support, leaving users vulnerable to unprofessional advice

Sharan Anuraj
First Published19 Jun 2024, 06:00 PM IST
The appeal of free therapy platforms is that they offer users quick, convenient access to mental health support
The appeal of free therapy platforms is that they offer users quick, convenient access to mental health support (Unsplash/Thought Catalog)

In recent years, mental health has become a widely discussed topic, with a growing emphasis on seeking support and treatment when necessary. Popular campaigns such as #NotAshamed and #TheMassiveOvershare have been working towards mitigating the stigma that surrounds speaking up about mental health issues. While this is a positive development, it has also led to a proliferation of free venting websites and apps that claim to provide a safe space for users to vent, with some even offering mental health services at no cost. 

Also read: Decoding high-functioning depression: Signs, causes and ways to treat it


BlahTherapy is one such site. Started in April 2010 in the US, this is a web-based chat application that pairs random and anonymous strangers from across the globe together as ‘venters’ and ‘listeners’. A venter is the one who wants to be heard, while a listener is the one willing to listen.

In 2020, during the pandemic, Ayush Mahajan, 23, from Jammu tried the app based on a friend’s recommendation. He began using the website as a means of venting. He initially struggled to connect with listeners, but found solace in the anonymity of the platform. “I believe sometimes all it takes is the feeling of being heard,” he says. 

Like Mahajan, the appeal of these free therapy websites and apps for users is obvious: They offer quick and convenient access to mental health support without the stigma or cost associated with traditional therapy. The woeful lack of mental health professionals to meet the global demand for help necessitates such platforms too. According to a 2020 Statista report, the mental health workforce rate on a global scale was 1.7 psychiatrists and 1.4 psychologists per 100,000 population. This ratio is far below the recommended level of at least 3 psychiatrists and psychologists per 100,000 people. The numbers for India are worse. 

“India has 0.75 psychiatrists and psychologists per 100,000 people,” says Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at Wysa, an artificial intelligence-based mental health chat box with coach support, headquartered in Bengaluru. “During times such as covid-19, a lot of mental health practitioners could not offer in-person therapy because of social isolation guidelines. In scenarios like that, some support via online modality is helpful than absolutely no support,” says Joshi highlighting the role that free therapy platforms can play in providing aid to those in need. 

Ventscape is another platform with an anonymous chat board feature where a user can express themselves without any account sign-up. While it promises to be a space for venting, the ephemeral nature of the messages – typed on a blank black screen – and lack of accountability raise concerns. 

UAE resident Maham, 16, shares how her experience on Ventscape wasn’t how she expected it to be. “It was my first time accessing this site to ask people for advice to get over my ex-partner. They (the listener) were joking around and then suddenly asked me ‘to get over this’,” Maham recalls. Being traumatised by this experience, and hoping that no venter has to undergo what she did, Maham switched over to becoming a regular listener on the site, and not a venter. Maham’s experience underlines the need to constantly assess the quality of care provided by these platforms. For, unlike traditional therapy, these websites and apps often rely on volunteer listeners or untrained individuals to provide support, leaving users vulnerable to unskilled or unprofessional advice. 

There is healing in knowing you are heard 


“In psychology, it is said that if you have listened to someone properly, you have achieved a goal. If you just allow people to speak and assure them that there is somebody who is giving them a patient listening, that is healing,” explains Indu Punj, national vice president at Empathy & Emotional Wellbeing Council at the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WICCI), Delhi about how the feeling of being heard, even on anonymous platforms, can be extremely validating. Punj, however, believes that ‘voluntary listeners’ ought to heed caution in lending advice. 

 “It is okay as far as it is purely listening, but when it comes to taking it a level higher where you (the listener) might end up giving a wrong suggestion, it can be harmful.” The venter can be anyone but the listener has to have some qualifications to be a healer, says Punj, stressing the need for having ethical guidelines and monitoring on sites like Ventscape, Blah Therapy, 7Cups and ilk.

Therapy is a lot more than just talking, and thus, cannot be done by just anyone. The rise of free therapy websites and apps highlights a broader societal issue – the commercialisation of mental health. The mental health industry is growing rapidly, with businesses eager to tap into a lucrative market. However, this trend undermines the importance of professional and qualified support. Adding to the frenzy are social media “mental health influencers” who often promote a narrow, one-size fits-all approach to mental health, which can be harmful to those struggling with mental health issues. These influencers also risk normalising trauma talk, leading to an overuse of trauma language that minimises the experiences of those who have experienced serious traumatic events. 

 “There are a lot of shades in between, and trying to put them under black and white is not quite right,” says Joshi. While the proliferation of free therapy websites and mental health influencers may seem like a step towards destigmatising mental health issues, it is essential to be cautious about their limitations and potential harm. Mental health is complex, and cannot be reduced to a few catchy hashtags or buzzwords. 

Sharan Anuraj is an independent journalist based in Delhi. 

Also read: Can AI become a digital companion for mental health care?

 

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First Published:19 Jun 2024, 06:00 PM IST
HomeLoungewellnessUse free mental health therapy platforms, but with caution. Here’s why

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