Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve is standing by the city’s $1.3 million contract with online therapy platform Talkspace. This comes after it was revealed only 1,357 Reno residents were using Talkspace to receive free therapy services as of last week.
Back in December, the Reno City Council approved $1.3 million in CARES Act funding for a deal with Talkspace to make its text, call and video therapy services available to every Reno resident. The contract extends through Dec. 21, 2021.
Many criticized the deal when it was first brought before the city council late last year, with some calling for the city to use the funding to set up a locally managed therapy network. City officials and staff expressed the concern that creating the infrastructure for this effort in a timely manner would be too onerous.
According to Schieve, the Talkspace deal was always meant to serve as a temporary solution and plans are still being made to address the widespread need for mental health services in the city, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve talked about the first wave of COVID, the second wave—but we’re not talking about the tidal wave,” she said. “And I think the tidal wave is the mental health component, the aftereffect of this pandemic. And remember, we were in crisis before.”
Schieve said plans were being discussed for the creation of a 24/7 crisis center a year prior to the onset of the pandemic, but the pandemic necessitated a more immediate solution. She said she came to this realization when seeking mental health services herself following the passing of both her brother and sister within weeks of one another in 2020.
“What really struck me was when I called all of the local therapists. The wait times were so long,” Schieve said. “I’m blessed with really good insurance, and they told me that I would have to self-pay a hundred-and-fifty bucks—and, for me, I’m super, super fortunate. I could pay that. But so many people, I thought—in a pandemic, people are losing their jobs—how are they going to pay for that, right?”
She landed on the idea of Talkspace after having seen a commercial for its services starring former competitive swimmer Michael Phelps and trying the service herself. The experience, she said, was positive.
“I just think on so many levels that we’re all dealing with grief, and I just felt like we’ve got to do something that people can access,” Schieve said. “It wasn’t about slighting our local providers because that has been in the works for a long time—and, like I said, bringing everyone under one roof is the end goal because we’re going to get out of this pandemic.
“But we’re not going to get out of this without having some trauma … whether you lost someone from COVID, whether you had COVID and you’re a long-hauler or like me this year, losing my brother and my sister within weeks of each other.”
Schieve stressed that the plan is still to move forward with a longer-term, local solution to address mental health needs in the community after the pandemic subsides.
“My thought was if I could help one person from committing suicide, then I really believe in this.”
She said Gov. Steve Sisolak has told the city it can use a building on the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services (NNAMHS) campus to create a crisis center. Schieve said she’s been working with Stephanie Woodard, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services senior advisor on behavioral health, to further these plans.
“That’s what I really, really want to see—that there is a place 24/7 that you can get services for mental health or relapse or addiction, whatever is happening. … A lot of times when the police interact with someone with a crisis, they don’t know what to do other than take them to the jail or an ER—and both places are not good when you’re in crisis,” she said.
Temporary or not, Talkspace has in the past been criticized. According to an article in the Atlantic, some therapists who provide services through the app “have complained of low pay and difficult working conditions,” and one therapist “found that when she provided a client with links to therapy resources outside the app, a company representative contacted” her to say she “should seek to keep her clients inside the app.”
Talkspace’s parent company Groop Internet Platform, Inc. in 2019 sued the therapist advocacy group Psychotherapy Action Network for defamation after it sent a letter to the American Psychology Association expressing concerns about Talkspace’s app-based therapy. Talkspace sought $40 million in damages but lost the suit.
Schieve said she was unaware of these criticisms or the lawsuit. But Talkspace has also been criticized locally by people who’ve had trouble accessing its services.
According to city staff, these difficulties were the result of an awkward sign-up portal that, early on, led to “a handful of users” not receiving their confirmation emails.
Since then, “Talkspace set up a special e-mail account specifically for Reno program participants,” and the city has not seen any recent complaints about access to services.
City staff said Talkspace has also now added “sign-up functionality that allows a user to bypass that pre-registration function and use location services on their mobile device to verify eligibility.”
With about nine months left in the agreement between the city and Talkspace, Schieve is standing behind the deal.
“Here’s the thing. Listen, I think when you stop trying is when you fail,” she said. “Of course, I knew that anything that I do gets scrutinized. I’m aware of that. But my thought was if I could help one person from committing suicide, then I really believe in this.”