Home >Science >Health >Pandemic, new platforms prompt surge in new therapists
Therapists have seen their ranks swell as the stigma of counseling has diminished and new therapy platforms have launched. (iStock)
Therapists have seen their ranks swell as the stigma of counseling has diminished and new therapy platforms have launched. (iStock)
wsj

Pandemic, new platforms prompt surge in new therapists

Increased demand for mental health help, advances in telemedicine and the desire for more fulfilling work are driving industry growth; ‘It’s a direct result of this time of isolation’

More than a decade into an advertising career, Fernando Barcelona was a midlevel creative in his mid 30s. He had moved from San Francisco to New York to Seattle. He had worked on a Super Bowl ad.

But he also was depressed.

“I don’t want to do this anymore," Mr. Barcelona, now 38 years old, remembers thinking. “The pressure just didn’t really justify the money for me."

He had always been interested in mental health, and at the beginning of 2019 he enrolled in Antioch University Los Angeles’s two-year graduate program in clinical psychology. He sees about 15 clients a week now.

“I’m feeling much more connected to who I am," says Mr. Barcelona. “People change, and trying to maintain a career that came to you during a high school job fair—I outgrew it."

The pandemic has accelerated a career-change trend that has been on the rise for years: more people are becoming therapists. The flexibility and autonomy allowed by the rise in telemedicine and text therapy, coupled with more people seeking out mental health help, is spurring more people into the field.

Antioch says its graduate program in clinical psychology had a 200% increase in applicants this fall. At Talkspace, an app that connects clients to licensed therapists via text and video calls, therapist application inquiries have tripled since mid-March. User growth since then has doubled year-over-year.

Therapists have seen their ranks swell as the stigma of counseling has diminished and new therapy platforms have launched. U.S. government data shows the number of mental-health counselors increased 19% and the number of marriage and family therapists grew 37% between 2011 and 2017, according to the latest data available. Talkspace and BetterHelp, founded in 2012 and 2013, respectively, have mainstreamed online counseling sessions and texting therapists, which young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have eagerly adopted. Those groups have the highest prevalence of serious mental illness among all age groups, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“It’s a direct result of this time of isolation and people pausing and saying what do I want to do with my life? Is there something more practical and workable for me?" says Charley Lang, co-founder of Narrative Counseling Center in Los Angeles and a professor at Antioch.

Mr. Lang, who transitioned from acting into therapy 20 years ago, says the graduate program attracts people who are discontent in other careers and are looking for meaningful work where they can help others.

He worried about his business when the pandemic hit, assuming people would lose their jobs and stop going to therapy. Instead, he’s seen increased demand with many adults at home juggling the anxieties of teaching children, preparing meals and working remotely.

“It’s one hour where they can close the door and it’s all about them," says Mr. Lang, who’s been conducting sessions from his weekend cabin in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. “A lot more people are finding their way to therapy."

Morgan Sammons, executive officer of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists, says the organization saw a record number of new applicants seeking to become credentialed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 1, and the number of psychologists being granted the health service psychologist credential has increased by approximately 40% over the past three fiscal years. Surveys the group has conducted indicate that while in early March there was a drop off in demand for services, six months into the pandemic most therapists are seeing an increase in business.

Pay can vary widely based on education, specialty and years of experience. While psychologists, who typically earn a doctoral degree in seven years of schooling, make on average over $80,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most people who are entering therapy as a second career complete a master’s program and 3,000 internship hours to become a licensed psychotherapist or clinical social worker. These therapists earn around $50,000 on average, according to the bureau. Licensed therapists in private practice, especially in urban areas, often earn two and three times that amount, those in the industry say.

Elliot Greenebaum, a filmmaker, started psychoanalysis as a patient 10 years ago. Despite success—including directing and producing the award-winning independent film “Assisted Living" in 2005—he still felt at odds with himself while working.

“There was a dignity to understanding the nature of my character and what was going on and I wanted to spend more time thinking about those types of forces that are inside of people," says Mr. Greenebaum, who in 2014 began studying at what is now called the Psychoanalytic Association of New York. He’s now in training and clinical practice at the Contemporary Freudian Society where he sees patients in downtown Brooklyn.

“I didn’t feel uncomfortable when I began as a therapist," he says, adding he found parallels from his work in film and documentary. “It felt somewhat like finding the truer voice of an actor or an interview subject."

After 10 years in political fundraising on Capitol Hill, Liz Kelly started to feel the polarizing and competitive nature of her work was no longer a good fit. Always interested in how people overcame challenges, she craved one-on-one interaction, and in 2010 went back to school to become a social worker.

Several years into practicing in hospital and agency settings, Ms. Kelly, who has two small children, was looking for something flexible. She joined Talkspace two years ago and sees all her clients remotely, through text conversations, audio and video messages, and live video sessions. Though her 20-client caseload has grown to between 25 and 30 amid the pandemic, she says her work is still compatible with being a parent.

“I feel fortunate to continue doing this work even though I’m facing my own challenges," she says.

Ms. Kelly also spends time onboarding and mentoring therapists new to Talkspace. She says her biggest advice is to think of the text interactions as a continuing conversation, and to try to show your personality whether you’re communicating via writing or video.

“I try to show that I’m a real person," she said. “Behind the screen there is a person there that is invested."

Write to Anne Steele at Anne.Steele@wsj.com

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