You can do almost anything online these days: check your bank account, read books, watch movies and television shows, and video chat a friend. Now you can connect with a licensed mental health care professional for online counseling.

How does mental health counseling work? And can it help with your mental health condition? Before you sign up, consider the advantages and disadvantages of online therapy.

Does Online Counseling Work for Mental Health Conditions?

Online counseling seems to be the solution to overwhelmed, overworked people with chaotic schedules. The ability to reach out to a licensed therapist assigned to you at any time makes this type of treatment an easy choice.

Once you sign up for online counseling, the service provider will match you with a therapist who has expertise in your mental health condition. For example, if you suffer from PTSD, you will most likely work with a therapist who has treated dozens of PTSD patients in the past or has extensive knowledge of the anxiety felt by those who have experienced trauma.

If you are looking for online couples therapy or online marriage counseling, the therapist assigned to you will be an expert on communication in relationships and how to make it work. You can book sessions to fit in with you and your partner’s schedule.

The therapist will get to know you and your concerns while also setting communication boundaries. Perhaps you feel comfortable video chatting with the therapist once or twice a week. The therapist can set a time for that but may also be available every day for text messages or audio recordings. This accessibility is almost unheard of in traditional counseling where you only meet with your therapist once a week.

Although they want help, people with social phobia or anxiety disorders may find it difficult to meet with a therapist face-to-face. They may experience the symptoms of social anxiety or a panic attack in anticipation of the weekly appointment.

Online counseling provides them a way to stay connected on their terms. If they feel comfortable only chatting with the therapist through text messages or email, they can continue their treatment without the pressure of meeting in person.

Online counseling service providers employ the highest security measures to keep your personal information safe and secure. Many of these providers take security measures that encrypt all the data so that if a data breach were to occur, the hackers would not be able to read any of the information.

These confidentiality and safety measures expand out into the community of therapists. Each mental health care professional is vetted and agrees to keep the information that you share with them private and secure. In many cases, you also have the option of using a pseudonym if you feel that you are not ready to share your real name with the online mental health counseling service provider and chosen therapist.

Online counseling is also an affordable choice for many people. Not all insurances cover counseling sessions or if they do, may only cover a certain number of sessions within a calendar year. Some therapists also charge for outside hours of communication if you need advice after the office is closed. With online counseling, you pay a set amount, usually monthly, for unlimited access to your therapist without having to leave your home or while on vacation.

Since the therapist doesn’t have the typical overhead costs associated with running a brick and mortar office with staff, the savings are passed down to the patient. This makes online therapy the most affordable option in many cases.

Considerations Before Trying Online Therapy

The American Psychological Association (APA) takes the stance that the use of mobile apps and text messaging for counseling should be a complement to in-person psychotherapy, based on current research and technology. They conclude that combining online counseling either through an app, email, phone, or text, with traditional therapy sessions are more beneficial to the patient.

However, traditional therapy may not meet the financial and schedule demands of many people. Before choosing a service provider, consider the following points:

  • Is the mental health care provider a licensed therapist?
  • By law, a therapist cannot practice unless they have passed the appropriate licensing requirements and earned a state license. Likewise, the therapist can only treat patients in the state(s) in which they are licensed.

    For example, if a therapist is licensed only in North Carolina, then they are limited to only treating patients that live in North Carolina. This licensure is to protect the patient in case something goes wrong during the treatment.

  • Has the therapist been trained in cybersecurity and privacy to reduce data breaches?
  • All online therapists should be familiar with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and take measures to protect a patient’s personal information.

    The therapist should have protocols in place to routinely check cybersecurity as well as monitor how and where they initiate a counseling session. The therapist should have control of privacy on his or her end and discuss the importance of privacy on the patient’s end during the first session.

  • Is the therapist working with patients within their scope of expertise?
  • Most therapists are experts in a specific area such as family counseling, clinical depression, or trauma victims. It is unethical for a therapist to treat a patient suffering from a mental health condition when the therapist is clearly untrained to handle the situation.

  • Would you feel more comfortable with online Christian counseling?
  • If you are a Christian, then you have a different perspective on the world. Online counseling may benefit you with a biblically-based therapy to help you live the Christian lifestyle while healing.

    If you decide to try online therapy, make sure that the therapist chosen is a good fit. Don’t feel obligated to stick to the first therapist assigned to you or the first one you picked. You are paying for the service.

    You want someone who will understand what you are going through with the type of personality that “melds” with yours. The more comfortable you feel with this person, the more open you may be to new therapy techniques.

When Online Mental Health Counseling Isn’t the Right Solution

Online counseling isn’t always the right solution for every mental health disorder or for every person with Internet access. For example, people living in rural areas may embrace the idea of online therapy as opposed to driving once a week to visit a psychologist an hour away. However, many rural areas have unreliable Internet service.

Before signing up for online counseling, the patient should confirm that they have reliable Internet service and prepare a back-up plan in case the signal drops. Perhaps they can call the therapist directly from a landline phone.

If several people live in your home, consider your privacy during counseling sessions as well as after. Do other family members routinely use your laptop or phone? Is there a chance that other people will read the messages between the therapist and you? These are important considerations that if left unchecked could have serious repercussions.

In face-to-face counseling sessions, the therapist does more than just listen to you and offer advice. They also consider your body language. They observe your nonverbal cues as you speak or think about a person or event.

However, with online counseling, this piece of the puzzle is missing. Even via video chatting, the therapist may miss an important clue. In your particular situation, can the mental health professional make an accurate diagnosis through online counseling alone?

Certain mental health disorders such as schizophrenia require deeper therapy sessions than what might be available through online counseling. These disorders require the therapist to observe the patient for signs that they are losing control. Although online therapy makes it accessible to almost everyone, it may hinder the professional treatment needed for severe cases.

The reality is that online counseling has its benefits and its drawbacks like any new treatment. Trying something new can provide a breakthrough for some people, so if after weighing the pros and cons of online therapy, give it a shot if you believe it will help you heal and put you back on track.

Photos:
“Laptop”, Courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Video Chat”, Courtesy of Visuals, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Difficult roads…beautiful destinations”, Courtesy of Hello I’m Nik, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Book Cover”, Courtesy of Rod Long, Unsplash.com, CC0 License

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