I went to my first therapy appointment when I was 13 years old, after a sudden bout of family trauma landed me in the “hot seat.”
I stared listlessly into the curious eyes of a petite, young Asian woman whose name I now forget. I remember the hot sweats and dry mouth as I shifted in my seat, wondering why I was there.
Then, I realized the conversation was about me; and at that moment, I felt something new ― something I desperately needed to feel. A kind of magic happens when you focus within ― even if it feels forced.
Since my debut therapy visit, I’ve seen five more therapists at various stages of my life. Still, I didn’t take therapy as seriously then as I do now ― at 33 years old in 2018, when it feels like everything in life is shouting at us.
Stillness, meditation and detoxifying facial masks help reinforce the practice of self-care, but therapy takes the intention to the next level. I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to give myself those precious moments of pampering if I didn’t have a handle on my anxiety. So my 20-year relationship with therapy has recently evolved once again.
In short, it’s gone digital.
Digital therapy is a treatment method that uses technology and online software to reach patients and clients. In the last few years, more and more therapy apps have taken on the task of guiding people through life’s hardships. Psychologist-designed tools like Pacifica offer digitally guided healing paths, and apps like Talkspace and WeCounsel facilitate one-on-one therapy sessions with a designated therapist.
A June 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal detailed the latest research into digital therapy’s efficacy. This included a 2014 study that suggested the method “has the promise to be an effective, and potentially cost-effective, alternative and complement to face-to-face therapy.”
When dealing with the troubles of everyday life in black skin , let someone hold your hand. Or at least drop a therapeutic DM.
Others are more cautious of the move away from in-person therapy.
“I struggle with the idea that an app could replace a human,” said Elana Premack Sandler, an adviser to a group developing a mental health app, in a 2017 Psychology Today piece. A therapist who sees you in their office or home can pick up on physical cues and body language that a digital therapist isn’t privy to (unless all of your interactions happen over video, and even then, more often than not, only half of your body is visible).
Regardless of the research, as a black woman, I believe there are times when it’s better to get the support you need and not harp on whether or not it’s via an ideal communication style. If I’m drowning in the ocean, would I critique the color of the lifeboat?
According to data collected by Crisis Text Line, the number of black women in crisis has increased by 30 percent over the last year. The most common reason? Finances, followed by depression and anxiety. The Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found that black people were 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental problems in their lifetime, including depression and PTSD. This is at least partly because black Americans are more likely to be exposed to violence or experience poverty than other groups.
Furthermore, black women often take on multiple caregiver roles at once and experience chronic and lifelong stress as a result, a phenomenon Dr. Cheryl Woods-Giscombe calls the “Superwoman Schema.” This kind of stress is linked to a higher rate of early-onset morbidity and the loss of physical mobility and cognitive function as black women age.
Black women clearly need a safe space to vent and process our emotions, but we don’t always have the resources to find and maintain it. With digital therapy, what used to feel out of reach, inconvenient and awkward is now personalized and incredibly accessible.
I paid less than $200 for a month’s access to a digital counseling therapy platform. This was a steal when compared to the average cost of therapy in New York City, which can climb upward of $200 per session. I set up an account and completed a form explaining my reasons for seeking therapy. When presented with a text box asking if I had anything else to add, I frantically typed, “I’m a black woman!” and hit “send.”
By the next morning, I was matched with the therapist of my dreams. I double-checked her identification and credentials with a simple Google search, and she made it a point to let me know that she always responds to messages before going to bed. I could message her as much or as little as I needed, and our scheduled weekly sessions could be completed over video, text or phone.
I strolled through my Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood during my first digital session with my new therapist. We had a smart and intimate conversation that also felt refreshingly anonymous. I didn’t shift in my chair or wonder if I was making too much eye contact while simultaneously trying to focus. I didn’t have to keep notes throughout the week when I experienced various ups and downs so I could bring them up in therapy later. I just sent my therapist a message, and within a few hours, I had a response.
Black women clearly need a safe space to vent and process our emotions, but we may not always have the resources to find and maintain it.
We all go through periods that challenge us more than others. A loved one’s death, breakups, new babies, new relationships ― all wield their own set of triggers, and all require us to seek new balance in their wake. We can keep a warm and familiar circle of supportive friends and family close by, but despite their best intentions and genuine love, nothing is as objective as the trained ear of a licensed professional.
In the black community, the most common response to stress and anxiety is often to pray or “give it to God.” Faith in God is one thing, but an actual person giving you life-sustaining emotional tools is an entirely different kind of healing. For 50 minutes, you don’t look at your phone or check your email or get work done or entertain anyone. You may not experience an epiphanic breakthrough, but you walk away feeling lighter.
If you find yourself in the middle of something you can’t seem to climb out of or if you feel you’ve hit your wall, release the idea that you’re strong enough to handle it alone. Enduring something alone should only be necessary when lost at sea or trapped in an elevator.
Digital therapy is a trend I hope will stick around for good. When dealing with the troubles of everyday life in black skin, let someone hold your hand. Or at least drop a therapeutic DM.
Ashley Simpo is a Brooklyn-based writer and mother of one. Her essays on motherhood, relationships and mental wellness have been featured on BET, Blavity, Scary Mommy and xoNecole.