Fighting the Stigma of Mental Health with A.I. and Machine Learning

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In the midst of a global pandemic, when social interactions are limited and many of us have access only to basic necessities that are deemed essential, more and more individuals are pivoting to online therapy to deal with anxiety, depression, and overall strife. Roni Frank, the Co-founder of Talkspace, joined IT Visionaries to discuss how their app is filling an important gap in the healthcare industry and how technology is providing people the help they need at scale.

3 Key Takeaways

  • There are three key barriers preventing people from receiving healthcare services: cost, convenience and stigma
  • Machine learning and A.I. are revolutionizing the healthcare industry to deliver better care at scale
  • Text messages and quick, efficient conversations are more effective than video conferences

For a more in-depth look at this episode, check out the article below.


In the midst of a global pandemic, when social interactions are limited and we only have access only to basic necessities that are deemed essential, more and more individuals are pivoting to online therapy to deal with anxiety, depression and overall strife. Roni Frank, co-founder and Head of Clinical Services at Talkspace, joined IT Visionaries to discuss how their app is helping to revolutionize the healthcare industry and how AI and Machine Learning are helping them to provide the best care.

Talkspace is an online therapy company that serves more than two million people with a network of more than 5,000 licensed and credentialed therapists and psychiatrists. The app connects users to mental health professionals via video conferences, phone and text message.

It’s a mission and company that were born out of necessity. According to Frank, one in four people in America are diagnosed with depression or anxiety, but 70% of those individuals do not possess the means to receive the necessary care.

“We’re talking about tens of millions of people that cannot access mental health service services,” Frank said.

The need for mental health services resonates deeply with Frank, who shared that her own marriage was saved through therapy.

“When Orin and I experienced a crisis in our relationship, our marriage was falling apart and we decided to give it one last chance in couples therapy,” she said. “It was so empowering and so valuable. That inspired me to leave my career as a software developer and go back to graduate school to study psychology. I thought I wanted to be a therapist.”

While she never earned her doctorate in psychology, Frank is helping millions of individuals get the help they desire through their digital platform. But, building Talkspace into the efficient and helpful tool it is today wasn’t always easy.

Once Frank began to analyze the issues within the healthcare industry, she identified three main barriers that prevented clients from receiving the help they desired. The first of those barriers was the cost associated with seeing a professional.

“Traditional therapy is very expensive in the U.S., and the cost of a face-to-face session is anywhere between a hundred to $300,” Frank said. “That’s a price point that most people cannot afford.” 

The second and third focal points were that their product needed to be accessible, and it had to negate the stigma that comes with seeing a professional.

So Frank and her team began to explore how a digital platform could help remove some of those barriers. Their first product launched in 2012 and while that iteration carried some of the same tools the platform hosts today, she began to worry about a lack of product-market fit, until something unexpected happened.

“I was also behind customer support and all of a sudden I started getting emails from our users, sharing with customer support about their psychological and emotional problems,” she said. “So instead of scheduling a live video session with a therapist, clients started sending emails to customer support. I was completely confused because customer support is all about technical support.” 

From that moment, Frank and her team identified two critical elements: Clients thought customer support meant clinical support, but most importantly their clients wanted to text or message their therapist. They didn’t want to be held to a traditional schedule.

“I always tell founders, you always have to support your decisions based on data and based on client feedback,” Frank said. “You cannot assume that you know better. You need to ask your clients, do you want to do video? Do you want to text? Do you want to do audio? How do you want to communicate with a therapist? How often do you want to communicate with this therapist? You always need to remember that they know better than you, and only based on client feedback, data, and engagement can you make decisions.”

To accomplish this, Talkspace uses a service called “Reply By,” which is a component of the website designed to tell the user when their therapist will respond to them.

“It’s all about setting expectations,” Frank said. “So the platform tells the client what time the therapist is going to respond to them. For example, if the client messaged their therapist at 3:00 pm the platform will send you a message that your therapist is going to respond to you by midnight. So there is always a window for the therapist to respond and it gives them enough time to read your message and respond in, in the most therapeutic way.”

According to Frank, clients and therapists communicate with each other five days a week and up to three times a day for the average customer. So how does Talkspace match clients with potential professionals?

“We have a very sophisticated matching algorithm that takes into account all the information you provided during consultation to identify the top three therapies based on their performance on the platform.” Frank said. “You will be able to choose one of them based on their interview video, bio, photo, reviews, et cetera. We believe that via therapists’, intro video and bio, clients are able to feel if there is some kind of connection with one of the three, which would make the match better.”

One of the ways Talkspace is measuring if that connection is value and is pushing the relationship between client and therapist forward is through data collection. Every three weeks clients fill out industry-standard metric reports. Another avenue is through client engagement through the number of sent and received messages.

“Based on our data, we know today what’s working, what’s, what’s not working and how therapy on our platform should look like,” Frank said.

To hear more about how Talkspace is utilizing A.I. and machine learning to further telehealth services, check out the full episode of IT Visionaries. 

To hear the entire discussion, tune into IT Visionaries here.

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