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‘Stop the shame’: Talkspace, Michael Phelps, Demi Lovato battle against mental illness stigma

·3 min read

During COVID-19 lockdowns, virtual mental health became one of the few viable options for therapy, with face-to-face interactions sharply curtailed amid the global health crisis.

From August 2020 to February 2021, symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder in adults grew from 36.4% to 41.5%, according to CDC data. Meanwhile, the percentage of grown-ups who reported unmet mental health care needs rose from 9.2% to 11.7%.

As Americans have sought online therapy, telehealth company Talkspace saw its revenue skyrocket 144.2% to $27.2 million in the first quarter of 2021 compared to $11.1 million during the same period in 2020.

According to Talkspace co-founder Roni Frank, the number of active members soared by more than 110% in the first quarter of 2021, to approximately 60,000, compared to roughly 29,000 in the same period last year.

“Talkspace is a mission-driven technology company,” Frank told Yahoo Finance.

“We built a digital health platform that is removing those barriers such as access and cost very, very effectively, to democratize access to mental health care,” she said. “Our mission is to make mental health care accessible and affordable for all.”

2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Victory Ceremony - Men's 200m Individual Medley Victory Ceremony - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Michael Phelps (USA) of USA gestures to indicate the four gold medals he has won at this Olympic games as he poses with his gold medal.    REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Victory Ceremony - Men's 200m Individual Medley Victory Ceremony - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Michael Phelps (USA) of USA gestures to indicate the four gold medals he has won at this Olympic games as he poses with his gold medal. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

The company offers various subscription programs to members ranging from “unlimited messaging therapy plus” to “couples therapy.” Prices per plan range from $260 to $396 per month for one-on-one private chats.

Talkspace encourages users to send texts, video, or voice messages to their provider, either a therapist or psychiatrist, “whenever something comes up - whether [they’re] commuting, at the office, or lying in bed,” according to the company’s website.

It promises that they will receive responses throughout the day — with the exception of 3 AM messages that may have to wait.

Star power has also been a major source of fuel for Talkspace’s growth. Olympic champion Michael Phelps and pop singer Demi Lovato have partnered with the company to advocate for mental health.

Both stars are “very passionate about removing the stigma” surrounding mental health challenges, Frank told Yahoo Finance.

“Stigma is very, very dangerous. Because of stigma people prefer to suffer in silence instead of reaching out for help,” she added.

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Recording artist Demi Lovato performs the national anthem before Super Bowl LIV between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Recording artist Demi Lovato performs the national anthem before Super Bowl LIV between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In a May 2020 interview, Phelps told Yahoo Life about his own struggles. “I’ve personally felt that I don’t want to be alive in my life. I felt that feeling before and it’s scary. And I have three little boys here, and I never want to miss a single day,” he said at the time.

Lovato has also publicly addressed her mental health struggles and drug addiction challenges over the years, most notably in her recent YouTube documentary released in March.

While recent CDC guidance relaxes mask-wearing and social gathering guidelines, Frank said anxiety levels remain elevated, even as officials encourage a return to normal.

“People are very anxious about going back to the offices and they’re still traumatized from the whole year,” said Frank.

“The most effective way to eliminate stigma is to lead honest and real conversations about mental health, and we are constantly pushing those conversations forward as a way to normalize this topic and get people used to talking about it - to stop the shame,” she added.

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