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Is Online Counseling the Wave of the Future?

While there are many public reservations about the use of telemedicine for medical consultations, the use of virtual sessions for therapy has already proven effective. For example, the University of Zurich found that virtual therapy was more successful than face to face sessions. This wasn’t a statistically insignificant difference, either, but a 42% to 57% rate of overcoming depression. The Zurich study was small, just over sixty patients, but did show marked improvements.

Why Was Online Counseling More Effective?

Patients in online counseling retained their correspondence in the form of instant messaging transcripts and emails. They could read the advice they were given and use that information as time passed. There was also benefit in being able to see what they said weeks before and see improvement over time, something that isn’t always obvious when slow changes to personal behaviors and outlooks are not noticed day by day.

Prior Studies on Online Counseling

The Zurich study is only the latest to show significant improvements in patients who used online counseling. A 2009 Lancet study found that 38% of those in online counseling improved in their depression versus 24% of a control group. The greater volume of communications and ability to refer back to them were considered factors in its success rate.

In 2014, the University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center launched a program to treat anxiety disorders, all done through a computer screen. This process shifting counseling from face to face sessions to digital ones, while adding modules to be completed by the patient. Weekly 10-15 minute sessions with the counselor were thus reinforced by educational modules and kept up by smartphone app reminders. In this case, the fact that modules and messages were sent during the week between counseling sessions helped reinforce changes in outlook and behavior, sustaining the gain, instead of patients only thinking about the topic while sitting with the counselor.

Online modules with links to other digital resources also give patients the ability to research what they don’t know in the privacy of their own homes. The project head said patients reported feeling like they were solving their own problems, but without the abandonment rate of self-help programs.

The Benefits of Online Counseling

One of the biggest benefits of online counseling for patients is the ability to access professionals online when there may not be counselors in one’s area qualified to address your problem. Then there is the advantage of eliminating the need to travel for the homebound, whether due to health, lack of transportation or other reasons. The ability to talk to someone in the privacy of one’s home versus being seen entering a counselor’s office could remove the stigma that prevents some from seeking care.

The benefits of online counseling for counselors themselves include keeping up with patients even after they move away, greater schedule flexibility due to the elimination of the need to commute, and even reduced overhead because you don’t need as large of a waiting room.

Counselors are required to be licensed in their state before they can take on patients without supervision. Before you earn an online master’s in counseling, select programs offering online counseling degrees with a CACREP certification, so that you can legally counsel people in your jurisdiction.

While online counseling is not yet the norm, the benefits to both patients and practitioners are enormous. Expect to see online counseling becoming part and parcel of the material taught as part of an online masters in counseling.

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