R U Listening? 17-Year-Old Entrepreneur Gives Kids Access to Counseling via Text Messages

Interview with Digital Daughter Ambassador Jamie Spelling

When Jamie was 14, she started a Tumblr blog to generate some laughs.  It quickly became evident, however, that along with the giggles, her adolescent followers were using her Tumblr account to voice their concerns and to get advice on common teen problems.  Jamie’s following grew and grew, and now, three years later, she has over 60,000 followers – many of them tweens and teens desperate to be heard, and potentially in need of counseling.

Something had to be done.  But, how could she, a teenager herself, help?  How could she make teen counseling as accessible as possible?

For this generation of “screenagers,” a line no longer exists between the real world and the cyber world. A 2012 Pew Internet & American Life study found that texting is the dominant form of communication for teens. And, in a recent CNN special report, “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” CNN reported that many teens use social media to cry for help when they are sad, angry and confused.

With her inbox filled with 20,000 messages, Jamie, a bright, charismatic and empathetic teen – and one of my amazing Digital Daughter Ambassadors – has been experiencing this new and troubling phenomenon firsthand.  She decided to do something about.

For the past year, Jamie has been working hard on building an app, TherAPPeutic, that provides teens with the ability to obtain informal counseling at an affordable price, and on a communication platform with which they are most comfortable: texting.  Here is our interview:

Audrey: Hi Jamie.  Can you tell me how you got inspired to start creating your app, TherAPPeutic?
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Jamie: This whole idea stemmed from events that followed the creation of my Tumblr blog. When I was 14, I created a humor blog to generate some laughs—laughs that I soon learned were only distractions from other issues. Some users began voicing their issues to me through the Tumblr messaging system. My blog became a safe haven and this feeling of comfort became contagious. My following grew to about 60,000 followers and my inbox filled with 20,000 messages. All these messages came from kids that insisted on being heard in a world that wouldn’t listen. I wanted more for them than what I, alone, could provide.

I realized they were turning to me because I was the easiest and most accessible form of help available to them. I wanted to change that. I got the idea to create something even more accessible, where teens could go to get advice. Anyone knows that the key to a teenager’s life is through his or her cell phone. So, I thought why not introduce the psychological world to the texting platform. At age 16, I sat at the kitchen table with my mom and told her my idea to create therAPPeutic. Now, at 17, I am proud to call this idea a reality.

Audrey: Can you give me examples of the common teen problems on which teens were looking for advice/counseling? Also, have you had any questions that were especially troubling and made you think, “this girl is really in trouble and I don’t have the means to help her.”

Jamie:  Here are two questions, directly quoted from my inbox, that I believe encompass many of the problems teens have and the major problem I am looking to fix with therAPPeutic.

  • “I just don’t want this to be my life anymore. I don’t know what to do. I can’t fix my family and I’m only fifteen so I can’t leave. I can’t live with them anymore I don’t know what I can do.”
  • “I’m almost positive I’m depressed, but don’t have money or insurance to talk to anyone about it. Is it even worth getting diagnosed?”

These questions are examples of very general concerns. However, I often receive very specific, very personal, questions – some of which can be scary to read as a 15, 16, now 17-year-old girl. Some of these include messages in which the user describes themselves as alone and with the means and urges to kill themselves in that moment. Often times, these are anonymous, meaning that when I answer, it will post to my blog and I can only hope he or she will see my response. I respond by encouraging the person that they’ve made the right decision by coming to me. I reassure them that they can trust me fully and try to persuade them to come off of anonymous so we can have a more private, intimate and personal conversation. Sometimes, I get responses back after I answer. Sometimes I do not. It is a hard job. But these people are my inspiration to create therAPPeutic and provide them with more than I can give them myself.

Audrey: Why do you think these adolescents were reaching out to you?

IMG_4623Jamie: I believe it is purely because there is no one else in their world that will listen. I offer them a chance to believe that their problems matter to someone. I think for a lot of people that is all they are after; the recognition that their problems are valid.

Audrey: Why do you think that teens and tweens are increasingly using social media and texting for information and advice on mental and physical health issues, along with stressful situations, at home, at school, with friends, with boyfriends, etc.?
Jamie: Teenagers make use of what is most easily accessible to them. Social media and texting is easy. It’s what teenagers know and it is what they are comfortable with. On the contrary, mental and physical health issues are often very uncomfortable topics for teenagers. I believe that it is the mix of these uncomfortable topics juxtaposing the comfort of technology that will allow teenagers to come out on the other end of their issues.

Audrey: Is social media and texting a good way for teens to get counseling?  What are the benefits?  Challenges?

Jamie: I’m creating an app where teenagers can receive counseling through text message. I one-hundred-percent believe that it is a plausible means of getting counseling. However, it is important to note that I am not creating this app as a replacement for traditional therapy. The texting platform offers major benefits. In today’s technology-oriented society, most teenagers are in possession of a cell phone. This raises the accessibility levels of counseling an extreme amount. Texting is also comfortable yet intimate enough for teenagers to use as a platform to voice their problems. I am under the impression that a lot of teenagers avoid traditional counseling for the fear of confrontation. With a cell phone in hand, there is more of a comfort level. Texting is challenging in the sense that words can be easily misinterpreted when read in print. We have all had situations where our words are completely read in the wrong way. This could pose an issue, however I do not believe that the challenges outweigh the benefits when it relates to teenagers receiving counseling through text message.

Audrey: What is the status of TherAPPeutic?  Do you have professional counselors on board?  Have you tested the app?

Jamie: The physical app itself will be complete in the mid October. Certain details like colors and other minor changes are not completely final, but the major functionalities are ready to go. We have about six professional counselors on board, pending a couple of more in the coming weeks. These counselors are either students or practicing high school counselors, all equipped with the right education and background to be successful using therAPPeutic. TherAPPeutic will be running a beta test in a local high school over the course of three months. During this test, we will iron out any kinks and get feedback from our teenagers and counselors as to how to prepare therAPPeutic for its formal launch. This beta test is set to start in late October or early November. We are very excited to begin hearing feedback.

Audrey: What do you do if a teen reaches out with a crisis – something serious? How will you know when a teen is really in a critical situation (e.g. suicidal)?

Jamie: TherAPPeutic is not a crisis hotline. There is a disclaimer that shows when the app is opened that says if you are experiencing problems requiring immediate care, to please contact your local emergency services; TherAPPeutic is not the place to go. However, we are of course expecting situations like this to occur, and therefore have certain protocols our counselors have been told to follow in that situation. In fact, we are in the midst of creating a protocol handbook that includes the proper way to handle individual situations, cases of threatened suicide will be included in this.

Audrey: What have you learned through this experience?

Jamie: I’ve learned that age has no effect of the impact you can have in society. I’ve learned that it is not the age of the person doing certain work, it is the passion they have for doing it. I’ve also learned that creating a mobile application is very expensive, as my babysitting fund can attest to.

Audrey: What are your plans for the future?  Has this experience shaped what you may want to study in school?

Jamie: I always thought I wanted to study and pursue psychology. After this experience, however, I think I am starting to sway more toward the business end of it all. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do with my life — I’m not sure many 17 year olds do know such a thing. Whatever I do, though, I hope it is something that matters.

Audrey: Jamie, this is all so impressive and I know will go along way to help so many kids.  Well done!  Is there anything you would like to add?

Jamie: Yes.  We are always open to adding more counselors.  If anyone out there knows of someone who may be interested in being a counselor, please contact me at TherAPPeutic@gmail.com.  Thank you!

(If you want to stay up to date on Jamie’s app project, as well and my other amazing Digital Daughter Ambassadors, please “like” us on the Our Digital Daughters Facebook Community.)

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