online therapy

Why Online Therapy Is A Valid Alternative To Traditional Psychiatry

Photo courtesy of Pasukaru76 via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic.

Traditionally, therapy happens been between doctor and patient, face to face, in person. But the Internet’s ubiquity means that much that was once only done in person can now be moved online — like banking, work conferences, dating, and yes, therapy.

Online psychiatry, also referred to as e-therapy, is exactly what it sounds like: replacing sessions in doctors’ offices with online sessions, often through chat, email, or webcam.

It’s been found to be just as successful as traditional therapy, and can save patients time and money. Is this an indication of a meaningful change in mental counseling?

Online therapy: How does it work?

According to online psychiatric website Metanoia, the main goal of e-therapy is to address an issue found by a Surgeon General’s Mental Health report : one American in five has a diagnosable psychological problem, yet nearly two-thirds of them never seek treatment.

Online therapy allows people that are not willing or able to see a psychiatrist in person to talk with professional counselors on the Internet, to seek emotional support or advice on mental health.

Some online counseling services, such as OnlineClinics.com, offer virtual assistance with patients in order to help them achieve a level of comfort from which they can eventually graduate to face-to-face therapy.

Is online therapy successful?

You may presume that online therapy is an unfit alternative to traditional counseling, but better than getting no help at all. A study by the University of Zurich, however, found that a focus group treated online improved not just as much, but more than another group treated traditionally.

The study found that though depression decreased significantly for both groups, no more depression was diagnosed in 53 percent of the group that underwent cyber therapy, as opposed to a very slightly less 50 percent for ones with face-to-face counseling. As time passed, that first group increased to 57 percent without depression, while those treated conventionally decreased to 42 percent.

Oddly enough, 96 percent reported the online therapy to be “personal,” compared to 91 percent treated in person. Slate writer Jason Bittel speculates that those with online treatment may have benefited from being able to reread correspondence, as opposed to those treated in person having only a memory to take with them.

Who benefits most from online therapy?

The International Society for Mental Health Online (ISMHO) has developed a guideline for determining whether patients are suitable for online therapy. These guidelines are meant to analyze patients’ ease with online communication, access to Internet connection, reading and writing abilities, and online relationship habits, to name a few factors.

It’s likely that if a person is comfortable on the Internet, then online treatment could be especially effective. It is also a preferred method for those that have tight schedules or live in remote areas.

Is online therapy private?

With evidence mounting constantly on government snooping, it is hard to believe that anything on the web is completely private. Most (if not all) websites collect information from their users for a number of purposes, though this information is much more likely to relate to your browser than your personal issues. Most websites will also list extensively what their policies on this are.

Some websites, such as the Online Therapy Institute, also offer services that require no account or personal information at all. Whatever patients choose, caution is necessary — John M. Grohol, Psy.D. writes that confidentiality can still be legitimately or illegitimately breached, and the risks of this are greater on the web.

Originally published on November 7, 2013. 

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert