While some argue that any therapy is better than none at all, there are distinct drawbacks to online counselling. We weigh up the positives and negatives.
There’s no denying that the internet has opened up more avenues for mental health treatment. Millennials especially, for whom tech is so much a part of life, are turning to e-therapy for counselling support in their droves.
Indeed, research show that for certain mental health conditions, online counselling is proving very promising. The Huffington Post reports that a small 2014 study found that teens who were counselled over the phone for obsessive compulsive disorder found just as much success in treatment as their peers who met therapists face-to-face. And more recently, researchers in South Carolina found that veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder respond just as well to therapy over video-conference as they do to treatment received in-office.
While some would argue that any therapy is better than none at all, there are distinct drawbacks to online counselling. Before you decide whether cyber therapy is right for you, it’s best to weigh up the pros and cons.
Here, some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages of e-therapy:
PRO: An increased perception of anonymity
This is arguably one of the strongest and most influential factors contributing to the popularity of e-counselling. “Because those seeking the assistance of an online therapist believe they are more anonymous, they respond and behave differently online,” says Dr John Grohol, founder and CEO of Psych Central.
One of these differences, says Grohol, is the ability to discuss more important, personal issues in a therapeutic relationship online much more quickly than they could in “real life”. “For instance, in my thrice-weekly mental health chats online, I get quite a few private messages throughout each chat. I have seen a fair amount of these discuss issues of extreme importance to the individual (childhood abuse, sexual abuse, suicidal behaviours) with me in these chats, having never had any previous interaction with the individual. In addition, some of these individuals go on to tell me that they felt more comfortable talking in an online chatroom and hadn’t even told their current therapists about these important issues.”
CON: Concerns about confidentiality, privacy and unreliable technology
Anonymity may be a major draw for those seeking e-therapy, but just how anonymous is it? Since information is being transmitted online, it makes privacy leaks and hacks more of a concern. Although confidentiality should be just as important in online therapy as it is in more traditional forms of treatment delivery, technology itself adds a layer of complexity. And, of course, tech problems can also make it difficult to access treatment when it’s most needed.
PRO: Enhanced accessibility
Online therapy offers access to mental health information to people who live in rural or remote areas and would otherwise not have access to such services. Similarly, e-therapy provides accessibility to individuals who are disabled or housebound. There’s also the convenience factor: since you will be attending therapy sessions in the comfort of your own home, you can schedule them for times that are most convenient to you. Finally, online therapy is generally far cheaper than face-to-face counselling, making therapy accessible to those who would not normally be able to afford it.
CON: Lack of nonverbal communication
In many cases, online therapists cannot see facial expressions, vocal cues or body language. These signals can often be quite telling and give the therapist a clearer picture of a client’s feelings, thoughts, moods and behaviours. While some delivery methods, such as voice-over-internet technology and video chats can provide a clearer picture of the situation, they often lack the intimacy and intricacy that real-world interactions possess.
PRO: Opportunity to reflect
On the flip-side, however, Grohol points out that online therapy is often conducted via email exchanges, which allow for “greater thought and elaboration on one’s emotions”. Certainly, the asynchronous nature of counselling by email provides both client and counsellor the opportunity to reflect on thoughts, feelings and reactions to the other person’s words – more so, than in the case of live verbal exchanges. There is also the argument that the very act of writing about one’s experiences is in itself therapeutic. And, finally, the exchange of emails with a therapist creates an automatic transcript of all sessions – a physical record that both the client and counsellor can refer back to.
CON: Ethical and legal concerns
Because cyber therapy eliminates geographical restraints, the enforcement of legal and ethical codes of practice is difficult. Therapists can treat clients from anywhere in the world, and licensing requirements and treatment guidelines differ from one country to the next. It is therefore very important that you understand your therapist’s qualifications and experience before you begin the treatment process.
Interested in finding out more about the important work done by counsellors? SACAP offers a range of counselling courses, which can provide you with invaluable communication skills as well as qualifying you for a career in counselling. Options include the Bachelor of Psychology, a professional qualification that can lead to registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a Registered Counsellor. For more information, enquire now.