At Talkspace, Start-Up Culture Collides With Mental Health Concerns

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Signing up with Talkspace is quick. Users create an account, fill out a questionnaire, and get a choice of therapists, who work for the platform as independent contractors. Those who sign up for the “Unlimited Messaging Therapy Plus” plan, at $260 a month, can send a therapist messages at any time and are promised daily responses. Higher-priced subscription tiers offer “live sessions” of 30 minutes. While users can send messages by text, audio and video, Talkspace is known popularly as a platform for texting.

The company was founded in 2011 by Oren and Roni Frank, an Israeli couple who felt inspired after their relationship was “saved” by marriage counseling. Mr. Frank had a background in marketing, and Ms. Frank was a software developer.

Ms. Frank is the company’s head of clinical services; as of Aug. 6, her LinkedIn page said she had a master’s degree in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from the New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, but she never completed the program. The degree claim was deleted after an inquiry from The Times. Mr. Reilly said Ms. Frank “studied for an M.A. but left her program before completion to launch Talkspace. Her LinkedIn profile was created while she was studying, the inadvertent error was corrected as soon as the NYT brought this to our attention.”

The app launched in 2014 to positive press but lukewarm customer reviews, with ratings of about three stars out of five on both the Google and Apple app stores, according to a Times analysis. Users complained about glitchy software and unresponsive therapists.

In 2015 and 2016, according to four former employees, the company sought to improve its ratings: It asked workers to write positive reviews. One employee said that Talkspace’s head of marketing at the time asked him to compile 100 fake reviews in a Google spreadsheet, so that employees could submit them to app stores.

Mr. Lori said that Talkspace gave employees “burner” phones to help evade the app stores’ techniques for detecting false reviews. “They said, ‘Don’t do it here. Do it at home. Give us five-star ratings because we have too many bad reviews,’” Mr. Lori said.

Mr. Reilly, the Talkspace lawyer, disputed this account, saying that employees were free to write reviews any way they liked. “We alerted employees if they were to leave a review, to do it from their personal phones — not from the Talkspace office network, as that would cause issues with the app store,” Mr. Reilly said in an emailed statement. “To be clear: We have never used fake identities or encouraged anybody to do so; there is no event involving ‘burner’ phones, and the idea in and of itself is nonsensical relative to the large number of reviews outstanding.”

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