Skip to content

    Health & Balance

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Is Online Help Safe?

    Consumer beware.

    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

    July 24, 2000 -- Eighteen months ago, Beth Steele of Houston was severely depressed. She had long suffered from bipolar disorder, but between caring for a daughter with the same illness and running her dog grooming business, she couldn't find time for therapy. Then a client suggested a solution: Why not seek therapy online?

    Hundreds of licensed mental health professionals -- and some unlicensed freelancers -- are offering such services through email and online chat rooms. Even professional associations that once pooh-poohed the practice are now issuing guidelines for online therapy.

    Recommended Related to Mind, Body, Spirit

    De-Junk Your Life

    By Anna Davies How to understand (and then unload!) the clutter that drags you down. Have you ever found yourself gazing longingly at the spare and tidy living rooms, kitchens, and home offices in a furniture catalog and wishing you could live in that world? No mess, everything neatly in its place — it's a setup that would last, oh, approximately seven seconds here on planet Earth! Fact is, you have a big, hectic, possibly messy real life — a life that you'll enjoy a lot more if...

    Read the De-Junk Your Life article > >

    Expect the trend to grow, says Leigh Jerome, PhD, a clinical psychologist who is helping the American Psychological Association develop its online policy. "Within ten years, computers will become so embedded in our lives, we won't even think of this as telehealth," she says. "The housebound patient will be able to receive care on a regular basis. Therapy will be conducted (via email or chat rooms) with remote or extended family members located thousands of miles from each other."

    Like Fire

    Despite these predictions, online therapy remains controversial. Little research has been done to show its effectiveness or whom it best serves. And many in the field still worry about privacy, liability, and fraud. (To learn more about the benefits -- and dangers -- of online therapy, see Therapy From a Distance and When Cybertherapy Goes Bad)

    "It's like fire," says Zebulon Taintor, MD, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on telemedical services. "It can heat your house or burn it down."

    For Steele, the advantages clearly outweighed the risks. She found help through a chat room at concernedcounseling.com, where she and her counselor "talked" every Tuesday for a year. "I always had trouble talking about my feelings face to face," she says. "Dr. Stone is the only person I've been able to open up to 100%; he helped me channel my energies in positive ways."

    Martha Ainsworth, a Princeton, N.J.-based web page designer, also testifies to the benefits of online therapy -- under the right circumstances. In 1996, Ainsworth found only 12 therapists willing to counsel her online, and felt confident with only one. "It was really convenient doing therapy by email," she says. "And it was one of the most profound relationships I'd ever had. Even though he wasn't physically present, he was a huge presence in my life."

    Today on WebMD

    woman in yoga class
    6 health benefits of yoga.
    beautiful girl lying down of grass
    10 relaxation techniques to try.
     
    mature woman with glass of water
    Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?
    coffee beans in shape of mug
    Get the facts.
     
    Take your medication
    Slideshow
    Hand appearing to hold the sun
    Article
     
    Hungover man
    Slideshow
    Welcome mat and wellington boots
    Slideshow
     
    Woman worn out on couch
    Article
    Happy and sad faces
    Quiz
     
    Fingertip with string tied in a bow
    Article
    laughing family
    Quiz