Are Online Psychologists For Real?
Updated November 09, 2018
Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
Any interaction on the internet, from ordering a pair of shoes to booking a vacation, is automatically a little more suspect than doing the same thing in real life. A little caution is advisable when online, especially where less than respectable websites are involved. But aside from not ordering generic Viagra from a factory in Laos, how credible are websites advertising online psychologist's services?
Online Psychologists: The Good, Bad and Ugly
There are several reasons someone in need of a little help and perspective might prefer to seek a therapist online, from convenience to the affordable counseling this route offers the discreetness of anonymous therapy.
Even with these advantages, though, it is never a good idea to take chances with your health, whether mental or physical. Unfortunately, although the qualification and licensing requirements for calling yourself a mental health counselor or psychologist are rigorous in the United States, it might be difficult to verify someone's credentials in the online world.
Where to Find Qualified Therapists Online
Just as with anyone on the internet who will take your money for goods or services, there are a few red flags to know of when looking. A poorly written or designed website may or may not be legitimate, but it only costs a mouse click to avoid this risk. Likewise, a website that only accepts a non-secured, untraceable payment method, doesn't list contact information such as a phone number and physical address or offers ridiculously low rates should be avoided. If in any doubt, an online service such as ScamGuard may be of help.
Benefits of Online Psychologists
The most obvious, and perhaps most important, is that an online therapist is available from anywhere you can access the internet. If your job doesn't permit you to take an hour off for unspecified reasons whenever you want to, this is a significant advantage over therapy in a traditional setting.
Even for those who have more control over their own schedule, the lower costs online therapy offers can be significant. Without the need to physically occupy the same room as a patient, the same therapist can deal with many more clients without compromising the quality of the treatment offered, leading to savings.
Finally, since the stigma attached to mental health issues remains to some extent, online therapy options allow people who would otherwise be hesitant to seek help from their smartphones or tablets. With many people suffering from mental afflictions in their lives at some point, it's difficult to understate this factor's effect.
What to Expect from an Online Therapist
Online therapy is much like traditional in-office therapy. Just as when you see a counselor in their office, you will spend a set amount of time engaging with the online therapist. You are always free to discuss any problems or challenges you like. The counselor guides you as you examine your thoughts and behaviors and learn how to improve your mental health.
A reputable online therapist will use sound psychological methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, solution-focused therapy, and any of the many therapy modalities recognized as beneficial by the mental health professional community.
When you choose an online therapist from a reputable site, they are committed to keeping your information private and secure. Although you may remain anonymous, this is still an important consideration since most people don't want to share their personal struggles freely with others. You can confidently know what you reveal in therapy sessions will never be divulged to others in any way.
Online therapists who work through reputable online therapy sites have qualifications you would expect from a traditional therapist. They should list their certifications and experience on their profile, which you can view before you choose your counselor. These therapists hold themselves to the same strict standards as therapists do for in-person counseling. In fact, most online therapists also have a local practice where they see patients in their office. That the therapy takes place online does not diminish the therapist's ability to understand your issues and help you move through them successfully.
What Are Sessions Like?
During the first session, you'll get to know your therapist. They will probably ask you questions about yourself and your current situation to get a better idea of how they can help you. As you work through multiple sessions, you will have time to explore your feelings about the situation, identify your healthy and unhealthy behaviors relating to it, and decide how you want to respond.
The therapist typically asks you questions to guide you to greater insights about the problems you are facing. They might teach you techniques for managing your emotions and help you understand how to choose the behaviors that will benefit you as you go through the week ahead. Sessions often end with an assignment, which might be a behavior to notice in yourself or others or a technique to try in everyday situations.
Other Services and Perks
Online therapy often comes with extra perks you don't get when you see a counselor in person. They may give you a private chat room where you can go to leave messages for your therapist at any time. This service is especially helpful when you want to describe your thoughts and feelings at the moment they are happening. The counselor checks the chat room from time to time and can leave brief replies or other messages. A bonus is that when you have your next session with them, they can see what you have gone through since you last visited with them.
In addition, you may schedule additional sessions during a crisis. This depends on the therapist's workload and schedule. Not only can you interact with the therapist more often most times, but you can do it from anywhere you have internet access. You can bring your therapist along with you on vacation, while you're away on family business, or when you move to a different home. Imagine how much easier the readjustment process can be when you don't have to find and get to know a new therapist after you move!
Changing Therapists Online
Once you've found a therapist, whether, at your local mental health clinic or online, you have just begun the process of bettering your mental health. Seeing their qualifications, experience and other information about them is a good starting point. However, you can't know whether you and the therapist will work together to solve your issues until you start therapy.
After therapy begins, you might decide that you would like to try another counselor. There's nothing at all wrong with that. If you feel strongly that your personalities don't mesh well, you can always look for another counselor. If you're looking locally, this could be a long process. Find a therapist who doesn't have a full schedule already and who deals with your types of problems. Then, meet them and go through the process of trying them out.
This process is much simpler online. You can see which therapists are taking new patients. You can learn about them from their profile and set up an appointment relatively quickly. It makes sense to give them a chance to get to know you, but you don't have to feel committed to long-term therapy before you even know them and how they work.
When You Need Local Help
While online therapy works well for many mental health problems, there are a few instances in which online therapy is not appropriate. If you're having thoughts of suicide, it's crucial that you seek help in your local area immediately. Likewise, if you have strong thoughts of hurting others, don't delay in finding mental health help in your community. You must deal with these urgent circumstances immediately and in person to ensure your safety or the safety of others. Once the crisis is past, you can reasonably choose online therapy to deal with issues relating to your anger or depression.
If you've chosen a suitable online therapist, they will always urge you to seek local help any time you show distinct signs of being in a severe mental health crisis. Then, when you've dealt with the crisis, they can again counsel you and guide you on your journey to better mental health.