The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine restrictions have led to a greater awareness of health-related telecommunication technologies. The notion that one needs to be physically present to provide or receive health care has changed. Health care providers have found that they could still meet their patients’ health care needs despite being physically distant from each other.
Traditional ‘in-person’ counselling has been the ‘normal’ method of conducting psychotherapy since it was first developed in the late nineteenth century. People who have sought help for their issues have had to meet therapists face-to-face, usually in an office environment. However, with the evolution of telecommunication technologies, people no longer need to travel to meet with counsellors or psychotherapists to receive help. Many mental health professionals and individuals have embraced online counselling, and it is changing the way therapy is being conducted.
What is Online Counselling?
Online counselling is the process of giving or receiving professional mental health services remotely through telecommunication technologies. These services are usually conducted via videoconferencing, telephone, in-app messaging or email.
Online therapy is similar to traditional therapy. Both online therapy and in-person therapy do not require physical contact, so it is possible to replicate the therapy experience online, especially with videoconferencing software such as Zoom.
According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, during the COVID-19 pandemic, three-quarters of therapists are doing only teletherapy, and another 16 percent are doing a combination of remote and in-person sessions.
Despite some concerns, online counselling offers the same level of security as that of traditional face-to-face counselling. Many individuals believe that online counselling may not provide the same degree of privacy or confidentiality as traditional counselling. However, these fears are unfounded. All information provided to your health care provider online will remain confidential, just as is the case with face-to-face counselling.
Who Can Access Online Counselling?
Almost anybody can access online therapy. As long as one has a reliable internet connection and access to a computer or device with a webcam, one is able to access online counselling services.
What Are the Processes Involved in Online Therapy?
The online therapeutic process is similar to in-person therapy. The primary difference, of course, is that it takes place online.
The processes involved in receiving online counselling depends on the medium of the service. It is, therefore, very important to understand how each medium works before your first session.
For example, communicating your feelings via in-app messaging may not be as efficient as videoconferencing. However, you may find it more comfortable. Before choosing an online counselling service, it is a good idea to understand how the technology works.
It is also important to ensure that the counsellor or psychotherapist is credentialed and licensed to practice in your geographic location. This will ensure you receive proper counselling from trained professionals.
As is the case with in-person counselling, one’s first session with the psychotherapist will generally be a consultation session. That is, much of the session will be about getting acquainted with each other. One can (and should) take the opportunity to ask questions and talk about any concerns they may have about desired outcomes for therapy and subsequent sessions.
The counsellor will generally want to gather some background information. They may again ask about your expectations of therapy and why they have chosen to begin counselling at this moment.
In this first session, both the therapist and client will usually discuss the timing for subsequent sessions and fees, privacy issues, confidentiality agreements, and communication mode.
What Forms can Online Therapy Take?
Online counselling usually happens via one of the following mediums:
- Email counselling – This is a type of counselling where the therapist and client exchange information via emails.
- Video chat counselling – In this counselling method, the therapist and the client communicate via video chats. This can be done with various social media apps like Zoom, FaceTime and Google Meet.
- Telephone counselling – Here, the therapist and the client communicate primarily through phone calls.
- Instant message counselling – Just like in email counselling, the therapist and the client write their thoughts rather than ‘talking’ about them. This is usually done with real-time text-based conversations conducted during a specific period.
What Are the Differences Between Traditional Counselling and Online Counselling?
There are obviously several differences between traditional counselling and online counselling. Neither one is better, just different. Below are a few of the differences and the Pros and Cons.
- Requires the physical presence of the psychotherapist and the patient.
- It is often less convenient as the sessions can only happen when both parties are available.
- May not be suitable for people with social anxiety.
- It can be stressful if one has to travel long distances to attend the therapy sessions.
- It is generally more expensive.
- Physical contact is not required before counselling can be done.
- It is generally more convenient as the sessions can happen at any time of the day.
- It is often less expensive.
Pros of Online Counselling
- It gives one access to a broader range of therapists.
- It’s a convenient option for people living in remote areas.
- Better access to therapists who speak their native language.
- It can facilitate family counselling irrespective of how far apart individual families are.
- It is often less expensive than traditional therapy.
- It is location flexible – therapy sessions can take place where ever one has an internet connection.
- Easier to keep your therapy private.
- It is more convenient.
Cons of Online Counselling
- Non-verbal cues, such as body language, are harder to be detected.
- A bad internet connection can disrupt the therapy sessions.
- Online therapy may not be sufficient to treat severe mental illnesses.
- In cases of emergency, it may not be easy to get help directly from the therapist.
- Some states do not allow access to out-of-state therapists.
- There are specific types of therapy that cannot be conducted online, such as Animal Assisted Psychotherapy and EMDR.
How Effectiveness is Online Counselling?
While online therapy presents some challenges, it has been received wide-ranging support from many clients and therapists. In a recent meta-review of studies published in the journal World Journal of Psychiatry, clients who received online therapy reported ‘high levels of satisfaction.’
In another study, it was found that for specific issues, such as anxiety and depression, online therapy, specifically CBT, was just effective as ‘traditional’ in-person counselling.
The emergence of online counselling does not signify that traditional counselling should be completely done away with. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, teletherapy is an effective and viable option for many people.
Merging the two counselling methods may be a useful combination in providing professional mental health facilities to those that may need it. It also ensures that more people in less accessible regions of the world can access therapy and mental health treatment.