Three, two, one...Speed Shrink!" booms a voice over the loudspeaker. Having three minutes to spill your most intimate secrets to a stranger in a crowded room may not sound like everyone's route to good mental health, even in the world capital of psychotherapy. But for today's time – and increasingly cash – poor New Yorkers, it offers a potential quick fix that is hard to resist.
We are in a lecture hall in the New School in New York's Greenwich Village to go Speed Shrinking. As the name suggests, it's like speed dating but with one crucial difference: instead of spending three minutes each with a series of potential Mr or Miss Rights, tonight's participants are here to see if a line of psychotherapists, life coaches and sex therapists can make quick work of their worries. More than 200 people have turned out for this free event and the queue to see the shrinks is growing tetchy as they all clamour to be heard.
Lined up along one side of a trestle table are eight mental health professionals, all road tested by the organiser, Susan Shapiro. Opposite them, a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of stressed-out, depressed, anxious, sex and work-addicted New Yorkers dish the dirt on their troubles. Participants play mental health musical chairs as they move from one expert to the next.
Reflecting on how she came up with the idea for Speed Shrinking, Shapiro explains: "Shrinks saved my life when I first moved to New York. I would have given my right arm for an event like this, which makes something which can be intimidating fun."
But in a city where people famously see more of their shrinks than their own families, can these brief encounters really help?
"When they've only got three minutes, people get straight to what's bothering them. It's amazing what you can achieve in a short space of time," says life coach Connie Bennett.
Manhattan-based psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert takes a longer-term view. He says: "It's a great way to start a dialogue and to find out about the different kinds of help on offer."
The first therapist I see is Vatsal Thakkar, an expert on addiction, depression and bipolar disorders. In response to my question about dealing with a friend who has unexpectedly turned into a demanding monster, he suggests strategies for talking in a non-confrontational but assertive fashion. Alas, as we talk, I'm distracted by a man "next door" talking about his sexual fantasies. Though he is oblivious to everyone else in the room, I suddenly feel self-conscious. By the time I've composed myself, a voice is yelling: "Three, two, one ... Move along. Other people in the room have problems too."
Next up is Sherry Amatenstein. She stresses the importance of setting boundaries. So far so Oprah. To my complete surprise, Stefanie Iris Weiss, who combines therapy and astrology, turns out to be the most helpful – perhaps because she is full of common sense and empathy. Though receiving advice from several different sources in the space of minutes is initially confusing, it really can shed new light on an old problem.
Mandy Lewis, an aspiring fashion designer, has come along with her friend Toby Delany after reading about Speed Shrinking on the internet. Lewis says: "It's a great way to shop for a therapist and find out who you connect with without spending a cent."
Delany adds: "I'd probably be nervous about going to see a therapist but an event like this makes it fun and takes the embarrassment away."
Some people have come for advice on a particular issue, from assertiveness to anger management. Others are in the market for a therapist and want to see what's on offer.
New Yorker Susan Davies is thinking of moving to Florida and is here to weigh up the pros and cons before she makes a decision. She regards the session as a success: "It's a good way to get another perspective by talking to a whole variety of people in a quick, focused way."
However, not everyone is so impressed. "It's so loud and crowded that the therapists can't hear you unless you shout," grumbles one male client, who doesn't want to be named. "These things are private. I don't want everyone to know my business."
Psychologist Diana Kirschner says that while this is no substitute for the real thing for those with serious problems, the quick-fix approach may be enough for some. "Even in a few minutes you can reassure people that their problems are normal and give them hope. You can recommend a technique or a book they can read," she says.
Most of the therapists have books to sell. Some have radio shows and blogs to promote. An hour in, several have already taken bookings for future full-length appointments.
A number of "patients" in the room have lost their jobs and with them, the health insurance that would ordinarily have paid for their therapy. They have used Speed Shrinking to save them the time and money they would otherwise have spent trying on several therapists for size.
When Shapiro held her first Speed Shrinking event earlier this year she thought it was one of those "only in New York" ideas. But she has since been inundated with requests to take it everywhere from Michigan to LA.
With patients and therapists crammed in like sardines, the usual rules of patient-doctor confidentiality have gone out the window. Given the close proximity of their neighbours, have any of the shrinks been surprised by anything they've heard today? "One lady sat down and announced at the top of her voice that she'd never had an orgasm," says Kirschner.
Sitting along the table, Alpert looks serious for a moment, then says: "Hmm, that's probably going to take more than three minutes to fix."
'Speed Shrinking' by Susan Shapiro is published by Thomas Dunne Books