In today’s world, time is of the essence in everything you do. From curbside grocery pickup to prescription drugs dropped off at your doorstep, it’s all about convenience and saving precious minutes and seconds during your day.
This mentality has made its way into the health care industry — partly due to COVID-19 and partly due to overall societal trends — with the growth of telemedicine. Online medicine is not only helping doctors discuss physical ailments with patients, but it has also become a prominent fixture in the mental health community. If you’ve never heard of or experienced online mental health counseling, we’re here to explain what it is, what the benefits are and what you should consider if you’re searching for mental health providers.
What is teletherapy?
Teletherapy, or online therapy, is an umbrella term to describe speech, occupational or mental health services through a secure, online connection.
Specifically as it relates to mental health, it is also known as online mental health counseling or telepsychology. Teletherapy can be performed by video (webcam or the camera on your smartphone or tablet), phone or text message.
During the past several years, teletherapy has grown in the form of app-based technology. For example, TalkSpace is a virtual company that allows patients to connect with licensed therapists through text, video and voice messaging. BetterHelp brands itself as the world’s largest therapy service, connecting patients with therapists through messaging, live chat, live phone and video conferencing.
Ever since the pandemic hit, health care providers around the world have leaned on online services to treat mental health. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2020 that more than 80 percent of high-income countries deployed telemedicine and teletherapy resources. In a way, COVID-19 has helped destigmatize the need for mental health interventions.
To help meet these needs, counselors, therapists and psychologists who traditionally held face-to-face sessions quickly shifted to online therapy. The transition was seamlessly made with the help of software companies who helped bridge the gap between patients and clinicians. AmericanWell is a telehealth company that securely connects doctors and patients through mobile and web platforms for live video therapy visits. Doxy.me is another popular secure telemedicine platform many clinicians use.
Is online therapy effective?
Many research studies have been conducted during the last decade to determine the difference — if any — between face-to-face mental health therapy and online therapy modalities.
In most cases, online therapy is effective for mild-to-moderate conditions if the services are provided by licensed clinicians using a secure connection. Mental health treatments depend on the disorder, as certain advanced techniques are needed for more severe conditions. Thus, online therapy may not be for everyone.
As for the research, a study concluded internet-based cognitive based therapy may be a viable alternative to in-person therapy. Another study was more conclusive with its results. Extensive analysis reviewed 20 studies that determined online-based cognitive behavioral therapy produced equivalent overall effects compared to face-to-face treatment.
Further, a comprehensive review of 15 studies found little evidence to suggest a difference between face-to-face psychological therapy and teletherapy.
The effectiveness of online therapy also applies to people receiving treatment for specific mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. A smaller study of 49 undergraduate college students found online video counseling was effective in treating mild-to-moderate generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.
One large analysis specifically reviewed 40 randomized, controlled studies of computer-assisted cognitive-behavior therapy (CCBT) for depression. The results found CCBT, with assistance from a clinician, helped treat depression symptoms, although self-guided CCBT didn’t have the same effect.
Online therapy benefits
The beauty of online therapy is how easy it is to access — therapists can treat patients from anywhere. For people with typical 9-to-5 jobs, scheduling regular mental health visits was difficult in the past due to time constraints. Many therapists and counselors have normal workday hours, so booking an in-person appointment usually means carving out at least 90 minutes after factoring in drive time.
Now, teletherapy allows patients to schedule a video chat on their lunch break or a telephone session on their drive home from work. For those working from home, teletherapy provides the ultimate flexibility to visit a mental health provider when they want.
The extended access allows providers to reach patients in rural areas who don’t have the time nor resources to drive to appointments.
Online therapy also caters to a younger, tech-savvy generation who are comfortable texting and using their smartphone for health purposes. For those who now conduct online therapy in their own homes, there’s an added comfort level of sitting on your own couch or in your own chair instead of in an office setting. This type of environment may make it easier for you to open up with your thoughts and feelings.
Some of the app-based and online therapy companies offer monthly subscriptions that provide more financial flexibility than a typical in-office visit. For context, BetterHelp costs $60 to $90 per week. Your local therapist may bill anywhere from $75 to $150 per visit. Check your insurance benefits to see if they cover teletherapy. Some plans cover mental health visits at 100 percent, regardless of if the sessions are in-person or online.
Online therapy isn’t for everyone. Some of the people most in need of talk therapy, such as lower income households, may not even have internet services to access these platforms. The same can be said for older adults who have difficulty using electronic devices or who have trouble reading.
While some people don’t mind missing out on the in-person connection, others may find it lacks the intimacy of a face-to-face discussion. Clinicians often pick up on body language throughout your therapy sessions, which can be difficult to interpret through video.
Aside from the technology and impersonal barriers, be aware of any privacy issues or false claims from online providers.
Anyone can market themselves as a therapist, but only licensed therapists have received the necessary education and training to offer evidenced-based treatment. In the event you are hesitant about the legitimacy of an online provider you find, ask them in which state they hold a license and what their license number is.
You should also ensure the site or app you use is secure, so your medical history and conversations remain confidential. Part of therapy or counseling requires opening up and being vulnerable about deeply personal information or beliefs. You want this information to remain private. Ask your provider if they’re HIPAA-compliant and if they use a secure network for video calls, audio calls and messaging.
Free online mental health screening at INTEGRIS Health
Contact your primary care physician if you’re interested in online mental health services. They can provide you with referrals of reputable, licensed providers.
If you’re unsure if you need a therapist or counselor, use this free confidential, anonymous mental health screening to help provide guidance. Visit our INTEGRIS Mental Health Clinic page to find more mental health resources, including a list of our providers.