Online Therapy Gains Momentum, But How Effective Is It?

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We use apps for everything from scheduling appointments and booking flights to keeping in touch with friends and family and requesting Uber rides. So why not revolutionize psychotherapy?

As helpful as traditional therapy might be, there is a new breed of therapy in town and it is here to stay. There are more than 100,000 health apps in the Google Play and iTunes stores and plenty of them are specifically focused on mental health. Researchers are just beginning to analyse whether or not online therapy is actually effective, but this does not stop thousands of people from using online therapy websites which connect clients with licensed professionals in an array of specialities.

Companies such as Talkspace and BetterHelp are revolutionizing therapy because they appeal to busy people who don’t want to commit to a weekly face-to-face session or don’t feel comfortable having a face-to-face conversation with a mental health professional. According to Nicole Amesbury, licensed mental health counsellor with Talkspace, “in face-to-face therapy, some people talk to fill the time,” but in online therapy they respond at their leisure, Fox News reports.

One study published in The New School for Social Research found that people give more honest answers to sensitive questions via text than phone interviews because they are not obligated to answer immediately. Plus, social media has its perks; the veil it puts between the two interlocutors helps the ‘patient’ pour his heart out to the mental health professional without the fear of being judged.

Research has shown that people who engage in meaningful writing [such as journaling] report reduced anxiety and increased well-being. However, neither BetterHelp nor Talkspace can help people with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder or who want to take antidepressants. There is also the privacy issue, especially with the all the hacking scandals which prove that virtually nothing connected to the Internet is 100 per cent safe.

The Atlantic cited Christy Leaver, licensed clinical social worker, as saying that clients and clinicians must understand that good hackers can access anything online no matter the industry. Although Talkspace describes its encryption as “industry standard,” most online counselling practices don’t provide that level of protection.

There is also the issue of quality. For example, BetterHelp claims that the online counselling it offers is “effective, affordable and discreet,” but at the same time those who adventure into the FAQ section will find a disclaimer which says that even though the service they offer “may sometimes have similar benefits” to traditional counselling, “in most cases it does not constitute ‘therapy’ or ‘counselling’.” When one of the most well-known online therapy services refuses to describe its services as real therapy, it may mean that other companies which claim to help people may actually lure them into unethical situations.

According to Joyce Marter, president of the Illinois Mental-Health Counsellors Association, some essential aspects of counselling are lost when the sessions are not conducted face-to-face, The Atlantic notes. Therapy is “an interpersonal process,” so the non-verbal communication is as important as the discussion itself, because it helps the counsellor make a correlation between clients’ stories and their body language.

There are a lot of risks that go hand in hand with online therapy and privacy or quality issues are just a couple of reasons which should convince people to think well before choosing this path. However, the silver lining of online therapy is its ability to give people access to care. Therapy still bears a social stigma, so receiving care via an app or online may be the perfect solution for people who are torn between asking for help and burying their pain deep into their souls.

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