Because of Covid-19, traffic on online-to-offline counselling platform Safe Space has increased by 64 per cent.
The Singapore startup allows people to seek remote counselling over video call and face-to-face sessions. As psychiatrists close or limit their practices, people have been moving to online counselling in droves.
“People were forced to use digital mental health tools,” explains Antoinette Renee Patterson, the co-founder of Safe Space.
“There were rising cases of anxiety because of retrenchment and unemployment, and those in the ‘sandwich generation’ had to look after both their elderly parents and children from home.”
It’s strange to think that you’ll be spilling your darkest secrets to someone you’ve never really met. However, it seems like online counselling platforms aren’t just a temporary phenomenon, and they’re here to stay.
But how effective are they as a mental health tool?
Discovering A Gap In Mental Health Services
For Antoinette, the inspiration for her startup came from a desire to make mental health services more accessible, affordable and convenient.
Originally, Antoinette had been working in digital advertising across several ad-tech startups for over a decade, which she claims to be a very stressful industry.
“Working long hours was championed, and it became normal practice,” she recounts.
“Inevitably, your health deteriorates. You have less time for enjoyment, and you become more irritable.”
The state of the industry was an open secret among Antoinette and her colleagues, but things hit a tipping point when her friend had a panic attack in the office.
In an attempt to help her colleague, Antoinette searched online for emergency mental health services but discovered that the generated list of experts was long and oblique.
We had to go through the whole list one by one. How were we supposed to pick a therapist, or find out who would be nearby and available for a counselling session?
That’s when I realised there was a gap in the (mental health) sector.
– Antoinette Renee Patterson, co-founder of Safe Space
It didn’t take long for Antoinette to get started.
The beginnings of Safe Space sprouted around 2017. The platform went live in 2019, marking its official market release.
Making Counselling Affordable, Accessible And Convenient
The Safe Space platform offers “freelance” counselling services and are available in-person and via video call.
“Budget constraints and the lack of free time are one of the main factors (impacting) our clients’ frequency of counselling,” Antoinette explains, adding that not everybody has the time, or resources, to travel for therapy.
That’s where digihealth comes in.
Online counselling services allow counsellors to remotely provide mental health services to those living in rural locations, working high-pressure jobs, or self-isolating during a pandemic.
The lower overheads of digital counselling also keep costs low. Therapists don’t have to pay for rental and administrative fees, which in turn pushes counselling fees down.
To illustrate, a face-to-face individual counselling session can cost up to S$180 at the Singapore Counselling Centre.
In contrast, one session at Safe Space costs about S$80 for video calls and S$120 for face-to-face meetings.
Online’s Great, But In-Person Counselling Is Crucial
Still, there’s a limit to what online-based counselling can do.
Platforms like Better Help use text counselling, which Antoinette considers a “good gateway for those considering digital counselling for the first time.”
However, counsellors need to read your physical cues, she asserts.
“For counselling to be effective, seeing actions like how you might be unconsciously picking at your elbow, signal negative emotions.”
That caveat is why Safe Space only offers video call and in-person counselling. Despite the option for video call, in-person services remain necessary since even a video call is limited by the confines of a screen.
For some patients, their home environments aren’t conducive for online counselling sessions.
To resolve that problem, Safe Space uses its own offices or allows select counsellors to open their offices for in-person consultations.
Regardless, online services remain popular among clients. Antoinette estimates that 70 per cent of Safe Space’s clients maintain their video calls despite the option for face-to-face counselling.
Maximising Counselling Hours
All of Safe Space’s counsellors are licensed practitioners under the Singapore Association for Counselling, or Australian Counselling Association.
Counsellors have underutilised hours in their day which could be used to meet clients.
“Finding more clients has been a number one pain point. Despite becoming savvier over time in advertising and social media presence, it is still difficult to source new clients other than word-of-mouth referrals.”
“Additional work like sourcing for referrals or filing administrative papers takes time away from serving patients, so we brokered a deal with them to help them fill up their unused hours.”
On top of that, Safe Space also provides its therapists with training in keynote speaking to help them hold educational webinars.
“It helps them break down the stigma, and explains the benefits of therapy. Our clients learn a lot from these sessions.”
However, therapists still need to be adequately compensated — even if costs are kept low, says Antoinette.
“Therapists work through their clients’ trauma for eight to 12 hours a day to help them feel better.”
Covering S’pore’s Mental Health Needs
To date, Safe Space has served 1,275 clients. The platform is gradually growing as more shift to utilising online mental health services during the pandemic.
The end-goal is to build an end-to-end mental health ecosystem, where all services are interconnected.
“Picture somebody with an eating disorder. They need counselling, a nutritionist, and a physical therapist or fitness instructor to help them get their health back on track,” Antoinette explains.
Safe Space also plans to expand its range of mental health services. That includes bringing more mental health professionals aboard, including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists.
Eventually, that will allow Safe Space to dispense medication and treat mental illnesses that require long-term intervention.
Singapore has come a long way in the past five years, says Antoinette. There’s greater awareness and openness to mental health issues but the country is only at the “starting line”.
“Our goal is to be the default digital mental healthcare provider; that is trusted by both clinical therapists and B2B2C clients regionally.”
Featured Image Credit: Wantedly / Safe Space