Teletherapy, Tumblr'd

Los Angeles therapist John Kim broke many of traditional psychotherapy rules when he built his entire practice through his popular tumblr blog. This week, the American Psychological Association will decide whether he’ll have to start following some of them.
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John Kim

Charlene Corpus, a 35 year-old San Diego sales analyst, likes running errands wearing a grey hoodie emblazoned with the words “The Angry Therapist” in bright orange Helvetica.

“I like your sweatshirt. What’s The Angry Therapist?” a bank teller once asked her.

“He’s my therapist.”

The back of the sweatshirt, reads, in the same bold orange lettering: “Dream big. Listen more. Talk less. Eat clean. Get strong. Forgive often. Love hard. Live well.”

That blend of common sense, positivity platitudes and new-age wellness trends hardly sounds angry, but the title of the blog isn’t meant so much to connote its content so much as it is to provoke, and attract a young, Internet-savvy generation to psychotherapy.

The Angry Therapist is John Kim a 40-year-old Korean-American Los Angeleno who bills himself as the world’s first licensed Marriage Family Therapist with a “public” practice treating patients through a “growing online community.” He believes he is the first ever licensed therapist to build his entire client base from patients he first met on the Internet.

The site effectively harnesses the zeitgeist of internet culture – with its memes and hashtags and its oversharing – and pairs it with a variety of classic psychological approaches (cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychodynamic, etc), to bring psychotherapy to the millennial masses. There are plans in the works for iPhone apps and themed community chat groups (e.g. one for twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, a divorce group, a nutrition group, etc).

This week, The American Psychological Association's (APA) will vote on a set of guidelines governing telepsychology. Experts believe that 80 to 90 percent of all therapy will be done remotely within 10 years. And while the association can only make recommendations that licensing bodies and state boards decide whether or not to adopt, the guidelines will aim to cover unanswered questions in the mental health community around telepsychology, such as murky interstate regulations and HIPAA compliance with technology. Kim’s own practice poses other questions, too: Can a growing online brand, and the necessary self-promotion that comes along with it, be an effective therapeutic tool?

What Kim began as a simple blog in 2010 is now a bona fide online brand, complete with support staff, grant funding, t-shirts, mugs, slogans, e-books and memes.

Three years ago, Kim was working as a counselor at a residential treatment facility. When he started The Angry Therapist, on the popular platform Tumblr, he was living with Craigslist roommates and reeling from a divorce.

Kim believes he was an angry guy earlier in life, but has since matured and grown. A lifelong LA resident and the son of Korean immigrants, he says his relationship with his alcoholic father was often fraught. He rides a motorcycle, loves greasy hamburgers, but is a Crossfit devotee with the biceps to prove it. He’ll tell you, in a blog post, exactly how he feels about being 40, divorced and single: “I did the picket fence thing early. Turns out those [expletive] things have splinters,” he writes. Now, he says, “I want [expletive] amazing, dizzy love.”

After logging years in L.A. coffee shops working on a screenplay, he decided to become a licensed therapist. He began a Tumblr blog chronicling career change and post-divorce struggles. One day, a Tumblr follower wrote him an email asking for advice on how to cope with a recent breakup. Kim wrote an insightful email back. The girl followed up, sending Kim an unsolicited $20 bill. Not long after, she became Kim’s very first client, and the site acquired a donation button.

The rest is every blogger’s fever dream: He quit his day job, had to start a waiting list of clients, started hiring a team to assist with marketing and product development as well as run his online groups.

Nearly one million page views, over 100 clients and over 3,000 tumblr “followers” later, Kim hopes he is giving talk therapy a needed image tune-up. Corpus and Kim say today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are more open to therapy and self-improvement practices than their parents’ might have been, and that, paired with their tech know-how, could change the market of psychotherapy. A one-on-one Google Hangout session with Kim runs around $90 an hour and group sessions are $25 (like many therapists in brick-and-mortar offices today, Kim does not accept health insurance), but it costs just $9 a month to become a “member” of The Angry Therapist’s “community”: a word Kim uses often when describing the goals of his practice. Clients find Kim online – through their own tumblr blogs, through friends’ referrals on Facebook, through someone posting an Instagram of a quote from his blog. Kim’s clients are all over the U.S. and abroad. They are college kids with eating disorders, young professionals going through breakups and divorces, busy business travelers, even high-class escorts.

“I used to think of a typical therapist as the kind of person who tries to think they have all the answers,” says Richard Tseng, a 26 year old copywriter in Boston who found Kim through Tumblr and says he would not have sought out therapy to help him process a breakup otherwise. “John portrays that he is a flawed person and is doing the best he can to become a better person.”

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Amanda Palleschi is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the National Journal, Government Executive and USA Today.

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