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So much of our communication happens in a digital bubble — especially now, as we physically distance and our days are filled with likes, swipes, and Zoom happy hours. While these connections keep us going, extended isolation can take a psychological toll and even prevent our in-person therapy visits. Enter teletherapy.
Through the magic of technology, teletherapy offers digital access to licensed mental health professionals from basically anywhere.
Even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, taking care of ourselves mentally and emotionally is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how teletherapy could be the next step for your mental health.
So, what exactly is teletherapy? It’s therapy with a digital twist. Instead of meeting with your therapist in person at their office, you meet via a virtual platform — over the phone, through text or chat, on an app, or via video (we’re all champs at Zoom by now, right?).
While this may sound less effective than a face-to-face sesh, research has shown that telehealth is actually an acceptable alternative to traditional therapy.
A 2015 research review even found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is equally as effective as in-person CBT in treating anxiety disorders. Teletherapy can also be used to treat depression, chronic stress, trauma, and relationship issues.
Everyone’s mental health needs are unique, and it’s important to understand the ins and outs of teletherapy to see if it’s the right choice for you. So let’s dive a little deeper.
A teletherapy session isn’t much different from what you’d experience at your therapist’s office.
If you’re just starting your therapy journey, you and your therapist will likely spend the first few sessions getting to know each other and making sure it’s a good match. During these sessions, give your therapist the opportunity to learn and explore how to best work with you and help you get results.
If your therapy journey is already underway, COVID-19 may have forced your therapist to switch their in-person sessions to a virtual model. If this is the case, the transition between formats might require you to work out kinks and find a new groove with your therapist to ensure you’re getting what you need out of the experience.
Your therapist may offer suggestions to make sure your privacy is protected, such as using an encrypted therapy platform or making sure you use a private network.
You may be thinking, “How is this any different from a FaceTime wine-and-vent sesh with my bestie?” While talking to your friends and family can feel therapeutic (and is, of course, great for you), only a licensed professional can deliver actual mental health services.
For teletherapy services, you’ll want to seek out licensed professionals like:
- clinical social workers
- professional counselors
- couples, relationship, and family therapists
Keep in mind that a therapist typically has to have a license in the state they’re working in. If you move to a new state, you may want to keep seeing your therapist remotely, but it may not be possible.
Your provider will need to make sure they’re following the rules of the state licensing board. This ensures they’re maintaining ethical and legal parameters, particularly when it comes to delivering services virtually.
Teletherapy has a variety of benefits, but the pros always come with some cons.
Benefits of teletherapy
Better and broader access: With teletherapy, you don’t need to live in a major city, worry about transportation, or play scheduling Tetris to access a therapist. It’s also great for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who find it difficult to attend in-person sessions.
More privacy: Because you don’t have to go to a therapist’s office, you don’t have to worry about anyone seeing you there (if that’s a concern). Despite the stigma surrounding therapy, there’s no shame in seeking mental health services. But your business is your business, and no one has to know unless you want them to.
Lower costs: Cost is the biggest barrier to therapy. A 2013 study found a whopping 47 percent of survey respondents with mood, anxiety, or substance use disorders reported that price or lack of health insurance prevented them from seeking mental health services. Teletherapy is often much cheaper than traditional therapy (cha-ching!). The extra costs of transportation, childcare, or lost time during the workday are also alleviated.
More flexibility: Schedule jam-packed? Teletherapy offers the flexibility to use the services on your time, instead of having the added stress of squeezing another thing onto your to-do list.
Location: Teletherapy allows you to be where you’re most comfortable during your sessions. Whether that’s in your home office or in a pillow fort with your pet, you get to choose where works best for you. And just like your co-workers on those Zoom calls, your therapist won’t be able to tell you’ve traded that stiff denim for your favorite cozy sweats!
Reduced wait times: Telehealth models may also allow your therapist to streamline their systems. This can result in faster turnaround times for paperwork or approvals from your insurance company, so you’ll be able to start reaping the therapeutic benefits sooner.
Safety: With most of the world practicing physical distancing, not having to see your therapist, their staff, or other clients in person creates a safer environment for all. In times without a pandemic, teletherapy can help you avoid unsafe driving conditions (like rain or snow) or avoid exposing yourself to others during cold and flu season.
Challenges of teletherapy
Tech issues: Virtual platforms can sometimes cause digital chaos, with slow internet connections, out-of-sync sound, or video delays making your session more stressful than helpful. Technical difficulties happen, and you should be prepared for the occasional hiccup. But if you find yourself spending more time sounding like an old-school Verizon commercial (“Can you hear me now?”), you may want to stick to traditional, in-person therapy.
Communication: Giving and receiving visual and body language cues may be more challenging when you’re transitioning to virtual counseling. Some platforms, like text or chat messaging, may also lead to misinterpretations of tone or meaning.
Compliance: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects patient privacy. Your therapist needs to comply with HIPAA regulations by making sure any chat, video, or audio program being used is secure. If they aren’t following these rules, your privacy could be violated.
Environment: If you don’t have a private space in your home to use for sessions, your teletherapy experience could be more stressful than helpful.
If your mental health provider doesn’t offer teletherapy or you want to try something different, there are organizations and services that offer teletherapy resources through apps, phone lines, and websites.
If you just need to talk it out: 7 Cups
Format: Chat room
How it works: This online emotional support service lets you anonymously connect with a network of “active listeners” via a chat room. Think of it as a kind stranger who’s there to hear you vent and offer encouragement. Active listeners don’t have to be licensed therapists (although some are), and they don’t offer medical or psychological advice.
If you prefer the CBT approach: Online-Therapy.com
Format: Live chat and messaging
How it works: This service is based on CBT, a type of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying mental health challenges and creating ways to cope. You’ll work with a therapist using worksheets, live chat, and messages. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Online-Therapy.com is offering some of its services completely free.
If you want other medical services too: MDLive
Format: Video chat via smartphone, tablet, or computer
How it works: MDLive offers 24/7 virtual counseling and psychiatry, as well as medical and dermatology services.
If money is tight: Rethink My Therapy
Format: Video chat, phone, and messaging
How it works: Rethink My Therapy offers therapy, psychiatry, and couples therapy via phone or computer. The service can also help you send records to your primary care doctor to document your care.
If you want options on the go: Better Help
Price: $$/week (billed monthly)
Format: Messaging, phone, or video chat via computer, tablet, or smartphone
How it works: One of the OG teletherapy options, Better Help is the largest online counseling platform in the world. You can chat with a licensed therapist via computer, tablet, or smartphone.
If you want an office experience at home: Amwell
Format: Video chat
How it works: This service is designed to mimic a face-to-face therapy session, but you’ll chat with a therapist via video chat.
If a chat room is more your thing: Talkspace
Service: Chat room
How it works: Operating in a text-based chat room, Talkspace lets you send a therapist text messages, audio messages, and picture and video messages. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Talkspace is offering free therapy for healthcare workers.
If group therapy is your thing: Support Groups Central
Format: Group video chat
How it works: This service offers a support group setting through video chat that’s led by a mental health professional. You’ll be matched with a group of people facing similar situations.
If you want 24/7 support: Health Sapiens
Service: Text, phone, and video chat
How it works: You can access licensed therapists by phone, video, or text. The subscription includes multiple counseling sessions per month, available 24/7.
If you need to talk to someone right now: NAMI’s Warmlines
How it works: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers various “warmlines” for non-crisis mental health support. Unlike a hotline, a warmline is for early intervention to prevent a crisis.
If you’re seeking LGBTQ+ community support: Pride Counseling
Price: $$/week (billed monthly)
Service: Messaging, video chat, and phone
How it works: This service offers online counseling specifically to support the LGBTQ+ community. You can connect with a counselor through private messaging, video chat, and phone.
If you’re a queer or trans person of color and need support now: National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN)
How it works: NQTTCN is an organization committed to the mental health of queer and trans people of color. The organization offers multiple non-crisis phone lines:
- Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
- GLBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564
- National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs: 212-714-1141 (English and Spanish)
- GLBT National Youth Talkline: 800-246-7743
- DeHQ: LGBTQ Helpline for South Asians: 908-367-3374
Teletherapy allows people to receive mental health services through digital platforms. It eliminates the need to go to a therapist’s office by offering care through videos, calls, texting, or even apps.
Research has shown teletherapy to be just as effective as the traditional in-person model. It has many benefits, including easier access, flexibility, and lower costs.
Teletherapy has its challenges and may not be right for everyone. But it can be a great alternative for people with busy lifestyles, those without access to quality in-person mental health care, or those who prefer the anonymity that telehealth may provide.