Nafari Vanaski is a freelance writer and former newspaper journalist.
For years, Jenna Sauber took advantage of traditional therapy, setting an appointment with a mental health professional to help her through various life and relationship issues.
"The traditional model of therapy suffers from access barriers that keep enormous numbers of people from getting the care they need."
But when Sauber, 33, needed help extricating herself from a friendship that was becoming toxic, she tried another route of therapy. Life was getting busy for the communications professional from Washington D.C., and Sauber decided it was time to try something new – signing up for an online therapy smartphone app.
She isn't the only one trying therapy on-the-go. The online mental health industry has been booming in recent years, and technology companies – even giants such as Apple and Google – are sensing an opportunity to serve a market that wants to tend to their mental health wherever they are. Some are even tapping virtual reality used with a smartphone to help fight alcohol and nicotine addiction.
For those seeking a sympathetic ear – or text – companies such as Woebot offer a mental health chatbot to help patients relieve their anxiety or depression. Other companies, like Better Help and Talkspace, provide licensed mental health professionals who are available to connect with a patient throughout the day.
Recently, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps became a brand ambassador for Talkspace after he disclosed his own struggle with depression.
Since Talkspace launched in 2012 by two psychologists, the company says it has worked with more than one million people seeking help.
How It Works
Potential clients fill out a questionnaire, detailing their mental health needs, and are connected with a professional whose specialties align with those needs. Basic text messaging packages are often offered by online therapy companies, as well as live-conversation packages and couples therapy. The average cost of these packages can vary and is usually billed weekly, with the ability to discontinue at any time.
Dr. Neil Lieberman, the Chief Medical Officer of Talkspace, is a board-certified psychiatrist. His background includes the oversight of inmates with severe psychological issues. One of the biggest advantages of online therapy, he says, is its accessibility. More than 70 percent of Talkspace users have never before been in therapy.
"It's a promising, but largely untested way to receive care."
"The traditional model of therapy – brick-and-mortar, 45-minute sessions – suffers from access barriers that keep enormous numbers of people from getting the care they need," Dr. Lieberman says. "Talkspace makes it possible for people to enjoy all the benefits of traditional therapy for a fraction of the cost, and without the need to schedule an appointment, travel to an office or get time off work."
Is It Effective?
This industry, while fast-growing, is still young. Psychiatric professionals are still trying to gauge its success, and whether it's providing the support its clients seek.
Dr. Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist and the director of research and special projects with the American Psychological Association, says there isn't a lot of research available regarding online therapy.
"It's a promising, but largely untested way to receive care," says Wright.
She describes a spectrum of online therapy-type products available to consumers, ranging from meditation apps to videoconferencing services with a live therapist.
"There may be someone who doesn't necessarily need a mental health diagnosis but could use the mindfulness app to really feel more centered. What we generally see and what we think is probably effective is the use of these apps in conjunction or as an adjunct to a face-to-face ongoing relationship."
The APA offers a set of guidelines for professionals and for consumers that highlight issues that potential patients should consider before choosing online therapy, along with research material and other sources for help, depending on the condition.
There are still a lot of unknowns about online therapy, including potential security, confidentiality, privacy laws, and emergency situations, Wright says. "Consumers do need to be aware of that."
Lieberman says that the Talkspace app and website is encrypted to protect information. The company has also been certified as HIPAA compliant, meaning that the company must have a system in place to protect patient information.
"We take privacy, security, and confidentiality very seriously," he says.
For Sauber and her problematic friendship, online therapy was ultimately a let-down.
"She was very nice," Sauber says of her app therapist. "She would check in twice a day, once during the day and then at night. I'd type out what was going on and she would chime in that night or the next morning. It wasn't truly real-time unless you happened to be online with her window. I found that I was typing in huge paragraphs of what was happening and then me waiting for her to respond." Eventually, Sauber left the friendship on her own and quit the app.
When she decided to get help for sleeping issues last fall, she found her way back to a traditional therapist. And although her schedule was still tight, she was able to schedule FaceTime sessions with the therapist, which helped. The sleep issues, she felt, required a relationship with a live therapist who could notice how her body was responding to stressors.
Wright says that the live aspect of traditional therapy can be instructive in guiding a patient's care.
"Being face-to-face allows a therapist to pick up on body language. Maybe a person looks away when they're talking about a particular topic, or somebody's affect doesn't match up with the content of what they're talking about. For example, they're talking about something that's traumatic and yet they're smiling. That kind of nuance can be lost in texts or even e-mails."
Still, Sauber said she could see the benefits of the apps for different types of personalities and situations.
"I can see it being helpful for people who may not be comfortable being in person with someone because they're shy or just uncomfortable about their body language or may be just better communicating behind a screen," she said.
As far as the future of this kind of therapy, Lieberman says that Talkspace is hard at work expanding its network of clinicians and investing in research and science. The company is also working to develop partnerships with employers and health plans to offer the service to more people.
"Our intention to is to make therapy – a profession we think can lead to meaningful change in anybody's life – as common as going to the dentist or hitting the gym."
"These technology-based approaches can supplement the face-to-face work that you do."
[Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that the company Woebot offers licensed mental health professionals to speak with patients. Woebot offers a chatbot service, a fully automated conversational agent, to help patients with anxiety and depression.]
Nafari Vanaski is a freelance writer and former newspaper journalist.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."