Is Online Psychiatry Effective?
Updated November 09, 2018
Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
It will be no secret to the reader that technology has had an immense effect on virtually every industry, but what about the mental health sphere? Online psychiatry has already made its appearance, and internet therapy may soon be pushing more traditional bricks and mortar practices to the sidelines.
What Internet Therapy Is
Online counseling offers a number of potential advantages, reduced cost not being the least important. In a country where insurers still cover a percentage of psychological treatments at a lower rate, most mental health professionals will likely welcome any step that brings care within the reach of a larger number of people. A psychologist or counselor - and with some exceptions, most of these services do employ qualified and licensed practitioners. One benefit of internet therapy is that the provider does not need to rent office space in a respectable building or employ a receptionist, which results in lower overhead costs.
Secondly, leaving the question of efficacy aside for the moment, internet therapy is just much more efficient. Instead of having to take an hour off work and travel to a practice, the patient may type a quick email or make a phone call. This may be especially useful in terms of dealing with stressful situations as they arise. Their electronic therapist may be available at that given time, or they may respond later. In either case, the patient can rest assured that someone is indeed listening to them. Most importantly, an electronic therapist is not a chatbot or other piece of software: it is simply the application of technology to place counselors and patients in touch with each other.
The Effectiveness of Online Psychiatry
The first point to consider is, something is always better than nothing. If a person suffering from addiction, depression, stress disorders or any other mental issue can get access to help they would have otherwise not received, it's a win for the psychiatric profession as a whole. However, a psychologist who charges $100 per fifty-minute to an hour and is only available between nine and five has no basis for complaint on this score.
As it turns out, research comparing the results of internet therapy to more conventional approaches is quite encouraging. While communicating in writing obviously obscures paralinguistic features and voice-only communication does not allow for visual cues, these are less than critical in some therapeutic modalities. It would certainly seem that online therapy is here to stay, whether as a stand-alone form of treatment or something to be used in conjunction with other means.
Limitations and Opportunities of Internet Counseling
Persons living in rural areas, in prison or in otherwise inaccessible locations can now receive quality care at any time of the day or night. Patients can also call upon a much wider range of expertise than a single therapist can offer, with specialists in anything from addiction to gender identity counseling, who work under the same umbrella organizations.
There are, however, certain things that electronic therapists just can't do. Making a firm diagnosis for, say, a court order is just not possible, nor is prescribing any form of medication. Effective regulation of these online services, including where confidentiality concerns arise, is also still an open issue. However, it's clear that this new horizon in treating mental health issues is here to stay, and we would be well advised to look for ways to improve it rather than simply dismissing online psychiatry as "an internet thing."