Online therapy: How technology is revolutionizing mental health

May 6, 2017

Often when we think of therapy, we imagine an office complete with a desk, a chaise lounge, and a clinician with a clipboard. But as technology continues to transform the way we live, changes in therapy are yet another sign of the times. Different from traditional, in-person therapy, online therapy has its own criteria and benefits, and is becoming an increasingly popular option for individuals seeking mental health treatment.

To find out more about online therapy, “Take Care” spoke with associate executive director of practice research and policy for the American Psychological Association, Dr. Lynn Bufka.

There are a few approaches to online therapy, Bufka explains, but through research evidence, the method that appears to be the most successful is video conferencing. While not face-to-face in the same room, video conferencing allows the patient and clinician to be face-to-face through their webcams. This allows for real-time communication and many of the same benefits of traditional therapy.

Texting, emailing, and other asynchronous communication options have emerged as well, offering patients a loosely structured “session” without real-time engagement. So, Bufka says, the patient won’t necessarily receive an immediate response, but the therapist will get back to them when they can. There hasn’t been as much research on this option, she notes, but asynchronous therapy can still offer relief to patients who choose it.

And when making that choice, Bufka adds, there are many factors which may lead someone to go the online route. It’s important to remember, she says, that therapists have different areas of focus and expertise. A patient may be looking for someone who is an expert in anxiety disorders, with none nearby. Or perhaps they personally know the only therapist in town, and would prefer someone they don’t know. Or maybe they would be most comfortable with a therapist who is the same gender, background, etc., Bufka explains.

Further, certain factors can make it difficult to get to an office, she says. If a patients’ condition makes it challenging to get outside, such as agoraphobia (the fear of going out in public), online therapy can combat some of that anxiety, and hopefully, she says, help the patient overcome that fear.

So, is there anything lost through online therapy? Does the therapist miss out on body language, facial expression, and other important cues? This is a concern for therapists and patients alike, but according to Bufka, research suggests that teleconference therapy can be just as effective as in-person.

In fact, certain training procedures for therapists practicing online therapy help to make sure many of the face-to-face aspects are not lost, such as making “eye contact” with the webcam, and asking tailored questions regarding demeanor and behavior to gauge some of the body language that would otherwise be seen in-person.

Another important consideration to take with online therapy is ensuring the vendor properly handles issues of privacy and confidentiality. Psychologists and other mental health professionals are highly trained in privacy issues, but it can’t hurt to read up on the privacy polices of the online service provider itself, or even ask the clinician directly.

And additionally, Bufka says, if privacy is a concern while receiving therapy online, securing your environment is important to protect yourself. Locking your phone or computer, researching the therapy service, and teleconferencing in private are all means to protecting your information.

Today, with online therapy being a relatively new option, what insurance policies will cover varies by company. But as the legitimacy of teleconferencing becomes more viable, Bufka explains, more and more companies are covering it.

Whether you’re texting, teleconferencing, or meeting in person, therapy can be tremendously helpful. Mental health is crucial to overall well-being, and with new developments in technology, therapy is becoming increasingly available to those who need it. If you’re thinking about seeing a therapist, consider talking to your doctor about the options to decide which form of therapy is right for you.