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Is Online Help Safe?

Consumer beware.

The Advantages

One advantage to cybertherapy is convenience; it's as close as your computer, available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and you don't have to worry about how you look or what you wear. You can also keep a written record of your therapist's advice for future reference by saving copies of the messages you exchange.

It may be less expensive, too; most therapists charge about a dollar a minute for email consultations -- slightly less than the $80 and up they might charge for a 50-minute online chat or office visit.

The anonymity of the Internet is also sometimes cited as an advantage by people who don't want others to know they are seeing a therapist. But "it is folly to think anything going into a computer is anonymous," warns Taintor. "It is all electronically retrievable data."

For some people, the nonvisual nature of cybertherapy is what appeals. Ken Evans of Russelville, Ark., did not want to be seen by anyone. Since undergoing brain surgery in 1994, the one-time personnel manager has been paralyzed on the left side of his face. He became seriously depressed, but was too self-conscious about his appearance to open up in therapy. His turning point came when he found the web site of California-based psychologist Julie Keck, PhD, www.counselingcafe.com.

"With the Internet, I don't have to worry about how I look or driving the car," Evans says. "I can talk to Dr. Keck any time day or night and have an answer within 24 hours."

The Disadvantages

On the other hand, the most common criticism of online therapy is that the therapist misses nonverbal clues. A person's body language reveals a lot about mood, Taintor says. And the way a patient reacts to a therapist's comments -- perhaps tensing when a sensitive issue is raised -- offers insight into problems. (See Why Counsel Online?)

Another drawback to cybertherapy is that doctors usually won't prescribe medication online. Following her online therapist's advice, Beth Steele saw a psychiatrist once every three months through her county's mental health agency, which provided her with medication.

That ultimately may be the role of online therapy -- to break down the barriers to getting treatment started. Cybertherapy, says Taintor, "is not a substitute for in-person therapy. But it is better than seeing no one at all."

Barbara Burgower Hordern is a freelance writer based in Missouri City, Texas, a Houston suburb. Her work appears in publications ranging from Money to Biography to Ladies Home Journal.

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