What Is Online Counseling, And Who Can Benefit From It?

By Steven Finkelstein

Updated November 27, 2019

Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC

If you are experiencing problems in your life, then it is a natural impulse to try to get some advice from a qualified source. You might reach out to friends or family, but although they will likely commiserate with you, the chances are that they have not received any specialized training. That is why counseling and online counseling exist. In this article, we will go over online counseling, what it is, who can benefit from it, and how you can decide if it's the best option for you.

What Is Online Counseling?

Online mental health counseling is something that has risen in popularity over the years. It is the provision of mental health counseling services through the medium of the internet rather than through face-to-face interaction with a therapist that might take place somewhere such as a hospital or a clinic. Counseling online can be offered in different ways, but three of the most popular are through email, video conferencing, or through real-time chat. We'll examine each of these in turn so that you can understand the attraction and potential drawbacks of each one.

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Online Counseling Through Email

Online counseling that takes place through email correspondence with a therapist is something that appeals to some people. One of the biggest attractions of it is that you can respond to what the therapist is saying in your own time, after first thinking about whatever advice they gave you in the previous interaction. Your responses to whatever they said can, therefore, be carefully measured. You can digest whatever it is that they said to you, and you can get back to them whenever you're ready.

The most notable problem with this method is that it is precise because of the immediacy of real-time conversation that some of the other therapy techniques work so well. When you're having a conversation with a therapist via video conferencing, real-time chat, or through face-to-face interaction, then you're getting immediate responses from them to whatever it is that you are saying. It's easier to keep a particular mindset, and it's probably going to be easier to come to some significant breakthroughs as well. It doesn't seem likely that you're going to get the best out of your therapy sessions through an email exchange.

Online Counseling Through Video Conferencing

Online counseling services that take place through video conferencing are useful mainly for individuals who don't want to leave what they consider to be a safe space to interact with a therapist one-on-one. For people who have various severe phobias, this might be a way to split the difference. You can see the therapist, and the therapist can see you. You're conversing in real-time, and it's very similar to a talk therapy session that might take place in the therapist's office, a hospital, a clinic, etc.

The main drawback is that at some point if you truly are getting over your phobias, your therapist is probably going to want you to come out from behind the screen of your phone or computer to meet with them face-to-face. This is not to say that you might not use video conferencing during an early phase of your treatment. Just know that probably at some point your therapist will want you to come in and talk with them directly. Doing so can represent a real milestone for you, but most therapists will be fine with your starting treatment through a video conference if that's what you need.

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Online Counseling Through Real-Time Chat

Real-time chat usually refers to a back and forth interaction that's taking place between you and a therapist where both you and they are typing in responses that take the form of a conversation between you. It serves the same purpose as video conferencing, but if it is not available to you, that's when you're probably going to want to go this route.

The real drawback is that you have to keep typing in your responses unless you have a program where you can speak and what you say shows up on the screen. If you do have to keep typing your responses, then that can get pretty tedious, especially if you are having a deeply involved conversation where you're trying to communicate through long blocks of text. This downside is usually enough to keep people from seeking online counseling through real-time chat. You're generally going to be better off just having a phone conversation with your therapist if that's something that both of you are okay with doing.

Who Is Most Likely To Benefit From Online Counseling?

As for who is most likely to benefit from online counseling, the most obvious answer is individuals who aren't able or willing to meet with a therapist in person. Some therapists can come to your home, rendering online counseling unnecessary. However, most of them have an office, or they use a clinic or a hospital as their place of work. It does stand to reason that the majority of them would prefer that you make an appointment and meet with them there.

However, most therapists also understand that some people aren't in a suitable mental state where they can leave the house or apartment to go to a conventional appointment. Maybe the person in question has a condition where they are highly fearful about being out in public. They might also have severe PTSD or social phobia. There are several possible conditions where the person in question isn't going to be able to meet with the therapist for a traditional appointment. When that happens, flexibility on the part of the therapist is certainly going to be appreciated.

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Most therapists don't have any problem with an option like video conferencing or email exchanges because what's most critical for them is that their patients start to open up in whatever way that they can. If getting to an office for treatment during the early stages of a relationship isn't something that can happen, most therapists will be willing to make some sort of accommodation. Their priority is going to be getting you well, and they will likely be fine with trying out some unconventional techniques if it starts you on the road to recovery.

How Can You Tell If You're a Suitable Candidate for Online Counseling?

The question of whether or not you might benefit from online counseling is best answered depending on your mental state. Not everyone who chooses to pursue it is indeed too anxious to leave their home, but generally, that's why people want to go this route. You may also elect to do online counseling if your therapist has moved somewhere where they are no longer immediately accessible to you. Perhaps they have gone on to a different city, but you're in the midst of treatment with them, and you want it to continue. In that scenario, it might be appropriate to try real-time chatting or video conferencing.

Still another possibility is if the two of you aren't able to schedule a time when you can go into the office to see them or wherever else it is that they practice. Maybe your schedule is very hectic, or theirs is. If you want to continue with your treatment, though, then you need to come up with creative options. Online counseling in some form may be what it takes to keep you on the path toward recovery from whatever is it that's bothering you.

Couples' Counseling Online

Couples' counseling online is also going to be a possibility for you if the problems that you are having involve your spouse or partner. Even if what's going on with you does not involve them directly, it's still possible that you will want to bring them in on some of your sessions. Whatever is happening with you is going to concern them, since they're around you a lot and they're bound to be worried about you. Having your therapist fill them in on the details of your condition is something that will likely be best for everyone involved.

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Whether It's Online Counseling or It's Taking Place Face-To-Face, Seek Help

The most vital thing for you to remember is that if you are depressed, anxious, or you are dealing with some other sort of personal crisis, you need to seek help before whatever is going on with you ruins your life. In many cases, regardless of whether you have been diagnosed yet with anything, you know that something doesn't feel right with you. Maybe you have some idea of what's causing you distress, and perhaps you don't. In either case, you need to take action for your peace of mind.

What's so wonderful about technology in the 21st century is that there are more options for self-care than ever before. That is certainly going to be true with online counseling. Since there are several forms that it can take, there is no longer any excuse for you to be passive about your treatment. Just because you're not able or willing to go to a therapist's office to see them, that no longer means that you can't get the help you need.

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