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May 13, 2020

Talklet: A Mental Health Start-Up

As students pushed for reform from Student Health and Counseling Services, six university students, four of whom are UChicago students, created Talklet, a mental health platform that offers conversations with graduate students of social work to discuss a specific problem.

“During my summer internships when I was away from campus…I realized the mental health resources in the adult world are just so hard to use,” CEO Amy Ma told The Maroon. Talklet is a web app designed as an informal space for users to discuss problems and stressors in their life. It was specifically made to address stress that users would not normally be able to alleviate in a traditional therapy session.

The start-up began in fall of 2019 and placed third in the 2020 College New Venture Challenge (CNVC).  As a result of its placement in the competition, Talklet had the opportunity to work with the Chicago Booth School of Business. “We were able to work with some amazing faculty at Chicago Booth, and their coaching has been really helpful for us to pull our start-up together,” Ma told The Maroon.

Because the CNVC has partnered with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Talklet was also able to collaborate with two students outside UChicago, Mike Tu and Yan Miao. “I think what makes our team very special is that we come from so many different backgrounds.… Our team was really created  by people who care about mental health, and we range from public policy, economics, and biology,” Kristen Lam, a Talklet cofounder who oversees the marketing and business aspects, said.

The company also reached out to graduate students at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration to partner with students pursuing careers in social work or therapy to work as mental health providers for Talklet. “These are people who are kind of already providing Talklet services on a daily basis,” Ma said.

Currently, sessions are priced at $30, but there is a sliding scale to adjust for the current COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional therapy sessions are usually priced by monthly packages ranging from $260 to $400 a month, and individual sessions can be anywhere from $75 to $150 with insurance. Without insurance, traditional therapy can climb up to rates of $450 per hour.

“[Reducing cost barriers] was one of the motivations to make this [web app].… How do you expect us to pay $450 per hour to talk to someone?” Lam said.

The founders also hoped to increase accessibility by providing their services through video call rather than in-person sessions. Lam said, “We wanted to provide the flexibility to more people, and I think this move was particularly important now with this pandemic.” 

To ensure confidentiality, a video call feature was built specifically for Talklet to avoid using less secure third-party applications. Talklet does not store any user video or data, so it remains Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act–compliant. Providers also follow strict confidentiality guidelines. 

In addition to their main service, the Talklet team is working on building a list of crisis hotlines that people in immediate distress can refer to. Since they are not looking to be a long-term provider, Talklet is also creating a referral system to therapists. Ma said, “We just want to be able to refer people if they do realize that’s what they want, so that there’s a seamless transition when they come to Talklet and we pass them onto the more robust providers they want to talk to.”  

“Ultimately, we want to help people…and that will always be in the forefront of any decision we make,” Lam said. Even though Talklet is not therapy, they hope to provide young adults who do not have any other access to, or need for, clinical therapy with coping skills and conversations. 

Ma said, “Talklet is a mission-driven business.… Our overall mission is to make mental health services accessible so people can live their best lives.” 

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