Does Online Therapy Actually Work?

For some conditions, online therapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment.
Therapy over the internet is an alternative for many people who can't make it to a professional's office. But is it legit?
KristinaJovanovic via Getty Images
Therapy over the internet is an alternative for many people who can't make it to a professional's office. But is it legit?

The Question: Is online therapy just as good as meeting a therapist in person?

The Answer: It truly depends on what you need. Certain therapy methods could work where patients receive treatment remotely through newer technologies.

“There are a number of studies looking at telemedicine for different kinds of disorders and they tend to be amazingly effective,” Mary Ann Dutton, professor and vice chair for research in the department of psychology at Georgetown University Medical Center, told The Huffington Post.

Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, is as good on the telephone or over Skype as it is face-to-face for some mental health conditions. The CBT method has you engage in a certain number of sessions with a counselor to spur the awareness of negative thinking patterns. Then you learn how to respond to challenging situations or negative thoughts in a more effective way so you feel less emotional distress.

A small 2014 study also found that teens who were counseled 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 videoconference to treatment received in office.

It could potentially work on eating disorders, as well. A small study from 2008 assessed 128 adults experiencing bulimia nervosa. The results were similar: Adults counseled by trained therapists via telemedicine were able to stop disordered eating habits just as much as the adults who were treated in person.

So, for the most part, teletherapy seems promising. But Dutton stresses that making an in-person connection with a mental health professional can be equally important to the treatment you receive.

“Lots of people would say the relationship [with your therapist] is what therapy is all about,” Dutton said. So, if you find it hard to trust or form an alliance with your counselor over the phone or computer, in-person sessions might be a better option for you.

Other mental health experts agree.

“Online therapy can be helpful, but it isn’t for everyone,” Jonathan Abramowitz, associate chair of the psychology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told HuffPost.

This is particularly true for other, more hands-on forms of treatment. Take, for example, someone who uses exposure therapy to get past an unease of being inside elevators. In this case, a therapist may physically accompany his or her patient on several elevator trips during treatment, Abramowitz explained.

Newer technologies such as Talkspace conduct therapy through messaging with a therapist instead of scheduled sessions. There are issues with this form of communication, though, as the Verge reported last year. Most glaringly with patient anonymity. Therapists may have no way of helping a client who may be a danger to themselves or others since the patient can request to remain unknown or not give their contact information. More research needs to be done to determine if online, self-help methods like this are truly effective.

Of course, this is not to say that you absolutely can’t go online or get help over the phone at all. It’s just a matter of finding the right type of therapist who is a qualified, vetted professional who tries to make the process as transparent as possible, Dutton said. Research suggests that there’s a major shortage of mental health care providers. Experts say teletherapy can alleviate this issue a bit, particularly in rural areas where trained experts are lacking.

Approximately one in five Americans will experience a mental health condition in a given year. And ultimately, any help is better than none at all.

“Ask Healthy Living” is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.

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