Getting everything online has become second nature for just about everything but medical treatment and clothes shopping. But Virginia Beach-based 7 Cups of Tea, founded by a clinical psychologist named Glen Moriarty, is attempting to offer that most personal of procedures—therapy—for free over a 24/7 counseling web app.
Except that 7 Cups doesn't just use licensed therapists—the person at the other end of the line could be anyone. That's right—it's the Mechanical Turk of therapy. Will this actually work?
"In therapy, you usually have to drive to the therapist, and when you get there, you're worried about being judged," Moriarty says. "But on 7 Cups, callers get right to the heart of the issue. It's incredibly healing. We're a global, social safety net."
Launched originally as a Y Combinator startup, six-month-old 7 Cups has thousands of people seeking counseling through the site per week. Some of the ailments that bring users to 7 Cups of Tea include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, surviving breakups, emotion management, traumatic experiences, or work-related stress. The site gets its name from a Chinese poem. In the poem, each of the seven cups of tea provides a different level of healing.
"[Therapy] has remained pretty unchanged since the time of Freud," says Moriarty. If it were invented in 2014 instead, it likely would've ended up being web-based and not geography-based.
Say you're depressed: Your wife doesn't love you anymore. Your boyfriend's taking advantage of you. Work sucks. You log onto 7 Cups of Tea, plug in your phone number, and the site bridges you and your "Listener," which is this app's handle for counselor, in a secure phone call. If you prefer real-time text chat, that's an option, too.
Your Listener—who could be a mental health professional, a student, a part-time mom—offer advice and a proverbial shoulder to cry on, all in total anonymity. Your conversations are deleted afterwards. It's the Alcoholics Anonymous model: Many Listeners were onetime users of 7 Cups. When you're in "the rooms," as AA members say, it makes sense to connect to someone on purely a human level—not just because they're trained or certified. But over the web? Can people really get comfortable with that?
Apparently they can. Listeners might have been known to drop "thinking of you" notes, says Moriarty, after their conversations are done, and users can schedule follow-ups with the same person if they're feeling it. Some Listeners are recruited through the site's partners, which include a variety of mental health organizations, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the International Bipolar Foundation, or groups that focus on LGBT or motherhood-related issues.
Granted, Listeners aren't supposed to dole out specific medical or psychological advice. But they provide unconditional support to people in dire straits. Hence the name "listener." "We helped over 5,000 people last week alone," Moriarty says.
The Listeners, who undergo a background check and a training program, hail from over 80 nations and speak dozens of languages. Users can request Listeners by country, language, or specialized topic, like health and wellness, work and school, family and friends.
There's even a gamification element for Listeners: They earn badges if they really connect with the caller. Listeners get points for extra-long conversations with users, for example, or if a user felt a real connection to the Listener and requests to speak to him or her a second time. In addition to the live Listeners, the site offers research-backed help guides that serve as a launching point to users as they begin navigating their problems and the healing process. There are videos, background information, self-inventories, and suggested exercises and activities.
One of the biggest challenges the site is facing is recruiting enough Listeners to meet demand, as the number of daily users has reached into the thousands. And while skeptics may say that talking to random people online can't match the experience of seeing a medical professional, Moriarty says that it's not even the site's goal to replace the pros. In fact, the more ways people can seek counseling, the better.
"Therapists shouldn't worry," he says. "We have millions upon millions in this world who need help. We're not even coming close to solving the problem." A similar service, Breakthrough.com, works with users' insurance companies to pair them with psychiatrists for online sessions.
Moriarty thinks the secret weapon is blending technology with psychology, and that kind of experimentation is something we'll likely see more of as more startups and mental health organizations harness the power of on-demand services. Whether you're wrestling with a crippling existential crisis or just had a bad day, Listeners on his site are standing by.
"That's a big interest of mine," he says. "Leveraging technology to help people."