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You probably use your smartphone for a lot of things: keeping in touch with friends, ordering food and groceries, and maybe even reading articles like this one.

But what about accessing therapy?

Text therapy has enjoyed a rising level of popularity in recent years. More and more people have started using their phones to reach out for support.

It may seem even more appealing to seek help from home with physical distancing guidelines still in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You’ve most likely noticed an ad or two yourself on your social media feeds or while browsing the internet.

Perhaps you’ve considered giving text therapy a try, but you might wonder exactly how it works. Can texting a therapist really be that easy… or that helpful?

We’ve got answers to those questions and more.

Text therapy services generally operate as follows:

  1. You’ll typically begin by answering questions that help the service match you with a therapist who can offer the kind of support you need. Whether you have the option to select your own therapist may depend on the service you use.
  2. Once you have a therapist, you can start sending messages detailing what you want to work through. Most text therapy services offer unlimited text messaging. Some also offer audio and video chat, though these services might cost a little more.
  3. You can text your therapist anytime. They may not reply immediately, especially if you text late at night or in the small hours of the morning, but you can usually expect a response within a day.
  4. You can also request a “live text” session when you exchange texts with your therapist in real time. This lets you bring up issues whenever they’re on your mind.

Like in-person therapy, text therapy offers privacy.

The app may collect information or data (always read privacy policies and terms of service), but your chat with your therapist is secure and won’t reveal any identifying details.

So, you’re safe to open up about personal issues and share anything you want.

Your therapist will help support you through exploring the issue and identifying ways to cope.

The cost of text therapy can vary depending on the platform you use and the additional services it includes. But you’ll usually pay less than you would for in-person therapy.

BetterHelp, for example, offers plans beginning at $40 a week. Talkspace, another big name in text therapy, offers a basic plan for $260 a month (or about $65 a week).

Some platforms charge a weekly rate but bill monthly, so be sure you know how much the service will charge you and when.

You can generally expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per session for in-person therapy — sometimes more, depending on your location.

Insurance often covers at least part of the cost of therapy, but not everyone has insurance, and some therapists don’t accept all insurance providers.

Many insurance plans do cover some costs associated with mental health treatment, but this will usually only include in-person therapy, according to the American Psychological Association.

Some insurance companies might cover the cost of text therapy or other web-based therapy services, but they often don’t or won’t reimburse you for the costs.

If you plan to use your insurance to pay for therapy, it’s best to check with your insurance provider first to see whether they’ll cover text therapy, or offer at least partial reimbursement.

Keep in mind, though, that if you have a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you may be able to use it to pay for text therapy.

While text therapy may not work well for everyone, it does offer some benefits that make it an effective approach for many people.

You might feel more at ease

According to 2013 research, text therapy may succeed for some people because of something called the “online calming effect.”

In short, this means that many people find online interactions less stressful than face-to-face interactions.

If you have trouble communicating in person, live with anxiety or social anxiety, or simply find it difficult to open up to people you don’t know well, you might have an easier time using text messages to share your difficulties from a place where you feel calm, like your home.

It’s fairly inexpensive

Therapy isn’t cheap, especially if you’re paying out of pocket. The costs can quickly add up if you see a therapist weekly.

But even if you pay for text therapy yourself, you’ll generally pay less each month than if you saw a therapist in person. If you don’t have insurance, text therapy might make counseling possible if you can’t afford in-person therapy.

Text therapy platforms often offer promotions or discounts when you sign up, making their services even more affordable.

It can help you manage temporary or minor distress

Therapy can help with any type of concern. You don’t need to have specific symptoms to benefit from support.

Temporary life challenges can still cause a lot of pain. Talking to a therapist, even over text, can help you sort through your emotions and get guidance on next steps.

It lets you connect even if you can’t get out

Maybe you live in a small town or rural area. Or you might have trouble leaving home, whether that’s because of mobility challenges, physical illness, or mental health symptoms that make it difficult to leave the house.

Whatever the reason, everyone who wants help should be able to access it. If you can’t get that help locally, text therapy provides another option.

Let’s say you identify as LGBTQIA and want support, but you live in a community that isn’t that welcoming and can’t be sure a local therapist will offer nonjudgmental, compassionate support. Text therapy can help you access a wider pool of professionals.

In spite of its benefits, especially for people who have trouble getting to a local therapist, experts generally agree text therapy is far from perfect.

Before you sign up, consider these potential downsides.

It can lack a professional, therapeutic relationship

Therapists have a specific role. They can become an important person in your life, but they provide a specific service that you pay for. They aren’t your friend, partner, or part of your day-to-day routine.

By communicating with a therapist through text messaging, your relationship might feel less professional. Maybe they crack jokes, use text-speak, or send emoji.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, and they can certainly make it easier to open up. But this casualness can also detract from the goal of therapy, especially in a text format.

Knowing you can text someone whenever you want can make them seem less like a professional and more like a friend. It’s important to keep the difference in these relationships clear.

Not all platforms are completely secure

Before you sign up for a text therapy service, make sure it’s private and secure. Even well-protected web applications can sometimes face security breaches or data leaks, so this is an important risk to consider.

The app you choose should at least offer a baseline level of privacy: compliance with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and identity verification (both your identity and that of your therapist).

Verify therapist credentials, just as you would if you met with them in person. If they’re licensed in another state, it’s never a bad idea to check their qualifications to make sure they have the right experience and training for your concerns.

There’s often a delay between messages

Most of the time, you and your therapist won’t text back and forth at the same time. Their schedule may only allow them to reply once or twice a day.

This can feel frustrating when you need support in the moment. If you send a message while in the height of distress but a reply doesn’t come for an hour — or a few hours — you might feel unsupported.

Of course, weekly in-person therapy works much the same way. You don’t have 24/7 access to a therapist there, either.

But the format of text therapy can make it seem like you’ll always have access to support, so it’s important to realize this isn’t always the case.

Text messages can’t convey tone or body language

Tone doesn’t always come across clearly in written formats, and body language doesn’t come through at all. That’s one main drawback of text therapy, since tone of voice and body language carry a lot of weight in communication.

An in-person therapist often uses your facial expressions, posture, and speech to get more insight into how you feel. Without these guides, they might lack important information about the emotions behind your words.

However, text can make it easier to put difficult feelings into words, especially if the topic is one you struggle to discuss openly.

It requires a lot of reading and writing

Needless to say, therapy through text means you have to write a lot. Some of your messages can get pretty long. Putting difficult emotions into words usually takes more than a few sentences.

If you don’t find it easy to communicate in writing, this format might exhaust you pretty quickly and end up being more stressful than helpful.

It’s not recommended for crisis or serious mental health symptoms

Text therapy is most often recommended for temporary or mild crises and distress. This might include things like:

  • mild stress or anxiety symptoms
  • problems with friends or family
  • relationship issues
  • life changes

The therapy platform you’re considering may have more information on what issues they can best help you with.

If you have serious mental health symptoms, including persistent depression or thoughts of suicide, text therapy may not be ideal.

A crisis text line, however, can offer some immediate support.

If you’re in search of affordable counseling but text therapy doesn’t sound quite right, you do have other options.

You might consider:

  • Video counseling. Also called teletherapy, this involves a weekly session with a therapist over a secure web platform.
  • Group counseling. Group therapy offers a diverse support network along with counseling. It’s often cheaper than one-on-one counseling.
  • Support groups. If you feel comfortable getting support from peers and others going through the same issues you’re facing, local support groups can often have a lot of benefit.
  • Sliding scale therapy. If cost is a barrier, try searching therapist directories, such as the ones at Psychology Today, for therapists who offer low-cost counseling options, like “pay what you can” spots or income-based fee structures.

If you’re facing challenges, getting support that works is what matters. Text therapy helps many people, and it could make a difference for you, too.

But if you struggle to connect with your therapist, you may not notice much change. If you fail to see any improvements with text therapy, it may be time to consider other approaches, such as video counseling or in-person therapy.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.