As a student completing his undergraduate studies, Alvin Tan was struggling to keep up with his classes and was depressed.
Despite desperately needing a healthy way to cope with his depression, the long waiting list for a mental health consultation was discouraging, and it was not something he could afford as a student.
He had a stroke of luck in the form of a kind lecturer that offered counselling services for free, and with her help, managed to pull through.
Looking back on his dark days, Alvin realised that there were many other people like him that needed these services as well.
That incident brought him to the path he has taken today—a registered clinical psychologist managing his own private practice in Klang Valley.
However, he realised that his services weren’t reaching out to a certain crowd he felt needed these services the most. These were the people that he had to turn down because they could not afford to continue.
“Due to the qualifications, time and attention required in providing service to clients, counselling services are unfortunately pricey (private center services range from RM200 to many hundreds for an hour).”
Feeling a strong urge to do something, he was driven to take a crash course in programming at The Next Academy with zero prior experience or knowledge in that skill.
That boot camp was where he met his co-founders Allen and Jasmine, who shared his vision of improving access to counselling services. They would join him in his entrepreneurial effort to make mental health support cheaper for Malaysians.
“The three of us coded the web app on our own, with Jasmin taking lead during development. We had a clear vision of what we wanted once the bootcamp is completed, and as such, were motivated to learn what is necessary in order to make it happen.”
Fast-forward a few months later, they officially built and launched their website The Help Talk on October 2017. The mission? To facilitate qualified mental health professionals to provide their services to clients at a lower cost.
They manage this through non-real time messaging through the website where the amount charged will be the same, regardless of the number of messages you send to your therapist. However, the therapist will only respond to the client once or twice daily from Mondays to Fridays.
“While the usual cost of face-to-face therapy in private practice is about RM200 and above per session (1 hour), the cost for using this online platform would be at only RM48 per week for unlimited messaging to your personal therapist.”
At the same time, Alvin believes that this staggered messaging allows the mental health professional to have more convenience and increase their efficiency at reaching out to a wider spectrum of clients, at a significant reduction in cost on their side.
Since their launch, they have acquired about 230 users, out of which 10 have committed to a paid monthly subscription service.
All the therapists on The Help Talk are licensed mental health professionals that possess a minimum of a Master’s Degree in Counselling or Clinical Psychology and are registered to the relevant professional bodies that oversee their operations.
Even as online healthcare platforms are on the rise, there is the constant debate of whether it will surpass the traditional means of face-to-face counselling.
“Face-to-face counselling provides a richer form of communication, and thus, will allow for better ability to develop a therapeutic relationship. However, richer forms of communication also come at a much higher cost, due to the human resources required to execute such a function.
“In short, both face-to-face counseling and The Help Talk are complementary to one another, rather than a substitute.”
Regardless, online counselling has still proven to yield results of its own and is able to compensate for its lack of physical interaction through anonymity—people tend to share more without the pressure of someone else beside you. As shared by studies here, there are more benefits to online counselling than people realise.
This is still an issue Malaysians have been grappling with to accept, as it is very much still a taboo subject.
Alvin shares that 3 out of 10 adult Malaysians suffer from a mental health issue, according to the National Health Morbidity Survey 2015. What’s ironic is that most of them don’t even realise it themselves.
“We have first-mover advantage in this region. Other online counselling platforms are based overseas, which means rates after currency conversion is equivalent to receiving regular face-to-face counselling in Malaysia (1 hour per session, 4 sessions a month).”
“Furthermore, personal concerns are often related to the local culture and lifestyle, therefore a therapist who is also local will be better able to empathise with the client’s difficulties and develop a better working relationship.”
They’re staying true to their cause of making mental healthcare accessible. The company is aiming to successfully reach out to their first 100 qualified mental health professionals and 1000 paid clients. They are also looking for their platform to be used by the staff of multinational companies as part of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
“I believe mental health is a critical issue to address, therefore making mental health services accessible via an online platform for everyone with an Internet connection destigmatises the process of seeking help. This is especially so in Malaysia where mental health is still very much a taboo subject.”
Feature Image Credit: The Help Talk