Aussie start-up Virtual Psychologist eases mental health support access

Dervla Loughnane, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Virtual Psychologist

By linking people to a qualified psychologist through phone text, the Aussie start-up Virtual Psychologist is disrupting the way people get mental health support by making it easier, faster, less confronting, & potentially life-saving. The platform is easier than an app, it doesn’t require downloads, accounts, or registrations, and is accessible to anyone in the world who can text.

Dervla Loughnane, founder and CEO said,”revolutionising the way people could access psychological support had led to new research that has revealed counselling by text was rated as better than or equal to face-to-face counselling. It was also improving the speed and scale of how at-risk people could be diagnosed faster and be connected with the right support.”

How can you get Lifesaving help direct by text?

Loughnane, a psychologist for more than 20 years, said “it was her experience being called to a Gold Coast school where a young man had taken his own life that made her want to change the way help could be delivered. When we worked with the police and looked through the young man’s phone records, we realised this young chap hadn’t reached out for any help.”

“I asked myself: What was so confronting that he didn’t reach out for help? I wondered if a simple message could have saved his life, would he have felt more comfortable with texting?”

Loughnane said “The question took hold so deeply that she quit her practice to develop a start-up where help was only a text away.I thought we as psychologists should be moving with the times and providing different channels of entry.The service is still the same. You are still getting a qualified psychologist, you are still getting cognitive behavioural therapy or other appropriate therapy, all that we are changing is the channel that we are delivering it in.”

“This is probably what sets us apart from so many other start-ups. We are clinically led. It is a psychologist starting a health-tech business, not a tech founder trying psychology,” she said. After starting with a single phone, Loughnane now helms a global IT platform, with qualified psychologists available on most texting channels like SMS, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp.

“We can be reached by whatever is on your phone.  You don’t have to create an account, you don’t have to download an app, there’s none of that.I wanted there to be as little barrier to getting help as possible, so with whatever is already on your phone you can come straight through to a psychologist.We’ve also gone on now to deliver video services, audio services, messaging services and all text-based services, so we really are now a channel of choice.”

she said, “Texting Virtual Psychologist links to a qualified professional. You come through to a psychologist. We don’t have chat bots. You talk to a human, & that’s really important to us.”

How is texting breaks down barriers for help?

Dervla Loughnane said,”research into the program over two years, which has been backed by analysis from the University of Sydney, found many people preferred counselling by text.”

The research found text-based counselling was rated as better  than or equal to face-to-face therapy on measures of convenience, making progress with problems, & having access to help when it was needed. It had also helped people communicate in a way that suited them.

Significantly, text-based counselling was also rated as just as effective as traditional face-to-face counselling for conditions including depression, anxiety, and emotional problems. It found 67% of people in rural or remote Australia reported that without text messaging, they would not have reached out for psychological support at all. Within a corporate setting, 44% of people said they wouldn’t have reached out if text counselling hadn’t been available to them.

Further, over the course of a nine-month trial with Headspace, the Australian non-profit organisation for youth mental health established by the Australian Government in 2006, Virtual Psychologist managed to cut the waitlist for counselling down from 8 weeks to 3 days by providing clients with the option of text counselling instead of waiting on a face-to-face.

With the text numbers provided through partnerships with government, corporate clients, or via QR codes on posters, beer mats & social media, access was made easy & private, she said.

“It can be for people who have lost their voice or can’t talk openly, such as a breastfeeding mum we were texting who needed help and support but was busy trying to put her child to sleep. Or there’s people in open plan offices, people who suffer from social anxiety. It just seems to suit some people based on their circumstances,” Dervla Loughnane also added.

“While 20 to 30-year-olds were the highest users, people of all ages and backgrounds accessed it, including the notoriously difficult-to-reach demographic of older men.I always assumed it would be youth, but we have farmers aged over 70 texting us from their tractors and the milking sheds. It’s because people feel they can be open without being embarrassed,” she said.

“It’s non-confronting, it’s not embarrassing, it’s really convenient and the other big thing is, and I’ve been a psychologist for 23 years, people say more to me through a text message and are more vulnerable far quicker through a text message than if they were sitting face-to-face. If I have a suicidal client, via text I will know that within the first five minutes because it is so non-confronting, and they literally speak from their heart,” Loughnane went ahead to say.

How is the start-up globalising personal help?

Dervla Loughnane went further and said “The start-up, developed with support of the Gold Coast’s LuminaX health technology accelerator, which is a 14-week program providing support to 10 start-ups in the health technology space annually, had been operating since 2017.”

It has delivered support for gov’t programs, corporate organisations, and had rolled out a pilot program with BUPA to provide text-based counselling services to chronic disease patients.

It has also begun operating throughout the world, offering a 24/7 global service delivery model that is governed by firm clinical protocols. On top of the organisation’s 13 fulltime staff, Virtual Psychologist has 7,000 qualified psychologists through affiliations & partnerships.

“We have built a global platform that has no boundaries & is only limited by data laws & professional standards. We can deliver our services cost effectively in a variety of languages to those people who find phone & face-to-face services too embarrassing or simply unavailable”.

“It’s a solution that is delivered via your mobile phone regardless of your global location. With psychologists based around the world, the organisation had also partnered with government and corporate organisations in countries such as the Philippines. For Filipino customers, Facebook was the dominant text channel & was helping provide hope in a country where the gov’t was working to break down the stigma around mental health,” she said.

How is texting a mentally healthy future?

Analysis of language used in texts over two years had also determined that while people were more vulnerable through text, they also revealed more about themselves more quickly when compared against transcripts of face-to-face counselling sessions to fast track mental help.

Dervla Loughnane also added and said that, “as a result, Artificial Intelligence programs were able to use this data to diagnose depression in clients simply through their words and language. In one trial run, anxiety, stress and depression were able to be identified with about 80% accuracy from text counselling without human diagnosis intervention for faster help.”

“In the future, this may help us scale mental health support at an affordable price. It means possibly making psychology more affordable by cutting the expense in the diagnostic stage & using available funding on treatment that can be delivered where it’s needed,” she said.