Voice Messaging, Texting, and Video Chatting: Is Online Therapy Here to Stay?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means that many therapists are unable to meet with clients face-to-face. As a result of these non-traditional and often challenging times, many clients have turned to online therapy for mental health support.

While the pandemic made online therapy more common, virtual therapy has been used since as early as the 1960s. The concept gradually became more widely accepted in the 2000s, and some therapists have been offering virtual mental health services for more than two decades.

Thankfully, we are far from those dial-up days. Clients can now easily search online for therapists and schedule a session in one click. Since 2020, the demand for online counseling has spiked, with internet searches for “counseling online” increasing by 124%.

Hate it or love it, human interaction has become increasingly digital. Here’s what therapists can expect for the future.

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The Origins of Online Therapy

Online therapy is a product of teletherapy. Over the years, teletherapy has taken place via phone, email, text, chat room, or videoconference. Teletherapy began as a mental health service over the phone in the 1960s, and mental health advice was offered via the internet for the first time in the 1980s.

In 1995, a public mental health chat was established, becoming the first instance of online therapy that provided continual dialogue between therapist and client. Clients paid for one hour of service in chat rooms, resembling traditional therapy sessions.

Since the 2000s, online therapy has gradually become more widespread, allowing therapists to reach more clients than previously possible.

What is Online Therapy?

Online therapy has many other names: teletherapy, e-therapy, and e-counseling, to name a few. The practice involves providing mental health services through email, text, video chatting, chat forums, or internet phone.

Email – Emails give clients that chance to carefully formulate their questions and ample time to digest their therapist’s response.

Text Message – Texts are useful for clients to be able to ask quick questions about challenging situations. They can also be used for in-depth conversations when other options are not practical.

Video Chatting – This is a fantastic option for visually oriented clients and allows them to feel like they are there with their therapist. Video also allows clients to truly feel connected to their therapist as if they were together in person.

Chat Forums – With live chats, clients can talk to their therapist and discuss their problems in real-time, just like they would in an in-person session.

Telephone – Talking over the phone has clear accessibility benefits, such as for clients with spotty internet service. Some clients may find it easier to call into a Zoom meeting depending on their needs.

With platforms such as videoconference and chat rooms, online therapy can occur in real-time. It can also occur in a delayed time format, such as through email messages. Though online therapy does have some limitations, studies prove that it is just as good as, if not better than, face-to-face therapy.

Online Therapy and COVID-19

Never has remote access to healthcare been more critical than during the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing guidelines set in place for much of 2020 and continuing throughout 2021, most therapists moved to virtual platforms.

While online therapy existed before the pandemic, it skyrocketed during COVID because therapists and clients alike had no other choice. Social distancing and stay-in-place measures solidified the need and improved the accessibility of virtual therapy for everyone.

Benefits of Online Therapy

Participation – With clients able to participate from their own homes or while on the go, no-shows are far less likely with online therapy. Plus, bad weather and traffic jams are no longer factors for clients driving to their therapist’s office. When a 50-minute session is just 50 – rather than 50 minutes plus time spent commuting – clients are more likely to have the energy to show up.

Convenience – People are busy. Those clients who couldn’t find the time to come to attend in-person sessions now have more options. For example, a busy mom could call in from her car during her kid’s soccer practice, or a young professional could video chat during his lunch break.

Flexibility goes both ways. Online therapy allows therapists to choose how many patients they want to work with and when. Being in total control of their schedule can improve therapists’ well-being, which will benefit clients in the long run.

Accessibility – Many rural areas do not have access to specialized therapists. Online therapy makes it possible for clients who didn’t have easy access to a therapist before to get professional mental health services. In addition, patients with physical disabilities or chronic pain can more easily attend sessions from home than in a therapist’s office.

With the ability to search for therapists online, clients can also find a therapist that fits their needs, such as a therapist of a particular demographic. This improved accessibility also means therapists can reach more clients.

Safety – As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, online therapy allows therapists and clients to stay safe in these uncertain times. It also improves safety for therapists who see clients who can be prone to violence.

For clients, participating in a therapy session from their home may feel safer, fostering vulnerability.

Downsides of Online Therapy

Technology – Technology isn’t always reliable. Connections fail, older clients may not be proficient with certain platforms, and clients who do not have access to a computer or reliable Wi-Fi connection may struggle to stay connected during a session.

Privacy – With many people from working home or attending class virtually, some clients might struggle to find a private space to talk about personal subjects, particularly those that relate to people living in their household. Privacy leaks and hacks are another concern since clients’ personal information is being transmitted online.

Distance – Some therapists study their client’s body language and nonverbal cues during sessions, but this becomes more difficult to do in a digital setting. Behaviors such as eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures might be missed if communicating over the phone or text. Video chats can freeze, and choppy connections can make it tough to catch the nuances of a person’s actions.

 Not for Everyone – Online therapy is useful in a variety of situations, but it may not be appropriate for serious mental illnesses. For example, clients struggling with addiction or more complex mental health conditions probably won’t benefit from online therapy in the long run.

Is Online Therapy Here to Stay?

While online therapy has drawn mixed feelings, it’s clear that it will stick around for the foreseeable future in one form or another. And there are undoubtedly many reasons that remote therapy should stick around.

Clients who are more comfortable or find it more convenient to attend virtually will benefit from permanent online therapy offerings. But it’s important to remember that online therapy isn’t right for every client, and it might not be right for every session. A blended therapy model, where therapists can offer both in-person and online therapy sessions depending on the client and the client’s need at the time, may be the best option moving forward for everyone. 

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