Text Tonic - Innovation in therapeutic care

If you read my blog often, you know that I like innovation. People who take a standard sort of thing, and then do something really different with it to make it better, more useful. The other day, I got a Twitter follower notice saying TextTonic was following me. I thought, "What is TextTonic?" So, I opened theTwitter's profile, and found innovator, Mandy KIoppers.

Here's the description of what she does.

Welcome to our innovative service that allows you to travel with a ‘Pal in your pocket’ - text us a question/concern for professional advice! A Problem shared is a problem halved. We’ll help you improve your personal power. Someone is here for you . . .
Please understand you have free will. This advice is given only in the realm of personal growth and self-help. This is not to be considered a substitute for professional therapy or counseling.
 Text Tonic can offer you another view or second opinion on issues you face in life. Objectivity can hold vast wisdom! I hope Text Tonic can be of service to you and help you until you find happier times. Mandy

In a world where the virtual is growing in importance, why not add a text based counseling service. May be the bridge between a problem and a solution that is found.  I was so intrigued by this idea, I contacted Mandy and ask if I could send her some questions to post here. The following interview we did by email.

1.    In a nutshell, what is Text Tonic? This is your elevator speech.

Text Tonic enables Mental Health Professionals to be more accessible to the public by offering a 24hour interactive text-based advice service. Text the word “Advice” and a brief description of the problem you are having to 81812 and a Psychologist or Life Coach will reply as soon as possible with advice(usually within two hours).We live in an instant-gratification society and this service can be with you every moment of the day, as long as you have a mobile with you. It is the first one of its kind in the UK and is the only interactive service available in this format. The website is: http://www.text-tonic.co.uk

2.    Where did you get this idea? What was the original idea, and did it evolve over time to be what it is now?

I was stuck in hospital at the time when I first thought of the idea and I was going through a break-up at the same time...as the saying goes “it doesn’t rain it pours”! I had been forwarding texts from my ex-boyfriend to my girlfriends for feedback and realised how lucky I was to have sympathetic friends who were willing to offer advice. Even so, I felt a bit of a burden to them and found myself wishing there was an objective text-based service where I could get advice, forward texts and wallow in self pity privately. So the initial idea was for people to forward texts for a second opinion and then expanded into offering general advice and support on life’s challenges as well.

3.    What is the one thing you are find people need when they contact you? Are they looking for a specific answer to a question, affirmation of themselves, validation of their own thought process or just curious and like to ask questions?

There’s a mixture of reasons for people contacting Text-Tonic. Many of the questions revolve around relationships and lack of confidence/self esteem. Others want their thought processes validated and some just seem to enjoy the idea of having access to someone for general advice – kind of like a constant companion in your pocket! Sadly it seems that communities/families are becoming more fragmented as globalisation steadily increases and this type of service fills a need for those people who feel they need to show that they are ‘together’ and in control of their lives yet underneath do not feel quite as confident. They have access to advice and support that is completely confidential.

4.    Who are the people that contact you? Do some of them become clients or do they remain more anonymous?

Due to the nature of Text-Tonic most people remain anonymous. Text-Tonic is fully regulated by an organisation here in the UK called PhonePay Plus. Text-Tonic’s concept had to go before a Tribunal where they investigated staff’s qualifications, checked that the advertising was within legal limits and also made sure there were precautions in place for texters who might become addicted. Each time we send an answer it costs the user £1.50. Because of this, the user is reminded when they spend £10, £20 and once they have spent £30 we need to end the session for that day. This system doesn’t really allow for people to become clients. However we are not averse to clients seeing us on a private basis but that is rare as we usually refer users onto to other professionals for ongoing indepth therapy. At present we have more women than men contacting us but that is slowly changing. Many men I have spoken to have said they welcome this type of service as they often lack a good support network and most say it isn’t possible to talk to their male friends about problems they may be facing.

5.    Could you give a couple stories about the difference you made using this social media tool?

I once had a young woman contact me, she was still living at home with her parents and was not getting on with her step-father. She felt very trapped and misunderstood and I offered her possible ways to try improve her relationship. She tried these out regularly for a week or two and the situation at home improved tremendously. I asked her to stop and think before reacting, count to ten, whatever she had to do not to react impulsively when she didn’t like something. As a result her parents saw a newfound maturity in her and adjusted their behaviour as well. I told her that “you teach people how to treat you” and that by altering her behaviour it would start a new pattern of behaviours.

A woman contacted me because she was in an abusive relationship and did not know where to turn. I put her in touch with a well known charity called Women’s Aid and slowly but surely she began to get her life back together. She used to text me as this was the only possible form of communication that worked when he was around. She received regular tips, pep talks and support silently and she didn’t feel as alone in what she was experiencing.

6.    Is this a technique that you see other professional counselors being able to use?

Perhaps, but I think that is still a long way off. There has been resistance to this idea because it is so new but with modern technology constantly changing I think it is important to keep up and adapt accordingly. The knowledge I draw on for this particular service comes from Positive Psychology, Cognitive-Behavioural therapy and brief solution-focused interventions. Those are the most suited to this kind of service.

7.  Last question, as psychologist, what do you see as the benefits and limitations of the virtual relationships formed using social media.  For the benefits, what are people gaining that more traditional forms of relating are not providing. As for limitations, what do you recommend people do to find balance in their social interactions online.

 This service in no way replaces traditional face-to-face counselling but is still extremely useful and helpful in its capacity to lessen anxiety and stress for users. Some people prefer typing their problems to a professional as they say they feel timid about having to speak to someone and they feel more in control when texting. Others have said they feel tongue-tied and feel even more anxious at the thought of having to speak to a stranger. Texting is less personal in many ways and that works for a lot of people. It is also incredibly mobile and is constantly available which many find reassuring. You can be on a crowded train, in a bar/pub/restaurant, in a library and you can still be communicating privately – it’s a very versatile method of communicating.I envisage being able to record quick tips and send these to people’s mobiles – visual images as well or short video clips (WAP technology) in the future. In the future downloads will be available on the website and the website will have all necessary information on health, beauty, life style and mental health issues. I also plan to provide daily thoughts for those who would like an inspirational quote to start their day. Without exception, everyone I have asked has said they need more cheer in their lives and more positivity and if I can offer that – excellent.

Balance is key in everything though and despite all the advantages of interacting online/using technology it is still important to connect with others and maintain all types of interacting skills with others. Identify the positives within each form of interacting and use them to your advantage!

Text Tonic is like many innovations. If fits into a previous unrealized gap in an already existing product or program. Being able to provide on-the-spot advice is really valuable. Most of us who provide counseling or consulting services let our clients know that we are always available to them. I want my clients to know that I'm responsive to their needs. This is the simple idea behind Text Tonic.

Mandy's service is only operating in Great Britain. You can also catch Mandy at her blog and on YouTube talking about abusive relationships.