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Therapy Gift Cards Are a Holiday Trend. Are They a Blessing or an Insult?

It’s a gift that must be carefully considered and could easily backfire — but for those who can’t afford therapy, it might be the most thoughtful item not on the wishlist

About five years ago, Leide Porcu was having a conversation with her guitarist friend about the music school she owned, and the subject of gift cards for music lessons came up. As a psychotherapist, Porcu says she “could imagine the utility and translatability of gift cards for my private practice, but I cringed at the idea of following in her footsteps. I see the motivation of seeking therapy and the negotiation of the fee as a clinical and strictly personal issue.” 

Telling a loved one they should speak to a therapist is a perennially delicate conversation, which makes bringing it up when they’re expecting a present seem like a recipe for disaster. But now, online platforms like Talkspace are providing “the gift of therapy” as a way to alleviate the burden of cost, offering gift cards for either a one-off 30-minute therapy session for $79, or unlimited video and text messaging with a therapist for $260 a month. “Many people can’t afford therapy on their own and offering gift cards creates yet another avenue to connect someone with the help they need — pandemic or not,” says Amy Cirbus, licensed mental health counselor and director of clinical content at Talkspace. “Traditional cards can be great, but if you’re looking to give something less traditional and more impactful, therapy is perfect.”

Porcu is aware that therapy gift cards are becoming a thing, but she’s still continued to avoid them, as have her colleagues. “Therapists in private practices aren’t a business-savvy community, and if they’re in doubt about a change, they’re conservative,” she explains. As such, she adds, “My hunch is that gift cards were initiated and are sold at this time solely by the more generic corporate entities.” 

As for any blowback to such a holiday gift, the risk of the recipient being offended is more a consequence of the stigma of mental illness than a reflection of the quality of the gift itself. So the recipient’s personal views should be taken into account, even if you want the gift card to be a surprise. “Consider the person you’re thinking of giving therapy to and why you’re giving it, “ Cirbus recommends. “If the beneficiary finds it offensive, communicate exactly why you thought of this gift for them and avoid being defensive or persistent. Not everyone is ready for therapy.”

The bigger danger with gifting therapy is if the recipient can’t afford to continue the process on their own. “This could leave the client feeling like it hasn’t worked, when they just hadn’t given it enough time, which could result in the client feeling like a failure and that the whole thing has backfired,” explains Jason Demant, a London-based hypnotherapist and cognitive behavioral therapist.

However, if therapists know that clients can only afford a few sessions to address an issue that requires more time, they can work with them to manage their expectations and collaborate on a transition plan. “There are downsides to stopping abruptly,” Cirbus admits, but she also points out that therapists at Talkspace are “skilled at pacing the process and providing the best treatment within specific time limits.”

Still, Demant argues that a gift card can negatively impact the receiver’s therapy in another way, too, compromising their progress before therapy even begins. “Paying for sessions can be a symptom or sign of a desire to control or take on a role on behalf of the person, and that isn’t appropriate,” he warns. “This can cause conflict since the client may feel disempowered by the seemingly paternalistic attitude of the gift giver.”

Not every therapist outside of Talkspace believes gift cards are a bad idea, though; in fact, experts like clinical social worker Elizabeth Marston are coming around to the idea — with conditions. “A gift card to therapy is a good idea only when the gift receiver has clearly, directly asked for it,” Marston says, comparing it to a gym membership or a cleaning service. Again, if it’s not explicitly asked for, there’s a good chance it could be taken as an insult. But relieving the financial burden for even one therapy session “can be extremely helpful to someone, especially this time of year when finances are tight, insurance deductibles are about to reset and we’re all dealing with the extreme mental and emotional stress of 2020,” Marston adds. 

Even Porcu is on board with that. “I see the usefulness of maintaining the old standards, but the changes in the field and in society, which resulted also in the possibility of offering gift cards, have their positive side,” she says. Not only do they take the financial pressure off, they alleviate some of the shame of asking for help as well. So while Porcu doesn’t plan on offering gift cards anytime soon, she’s stopped cringing over the idea. “Who knows? It may become the new holiday standard — like a scarf.”