Is Online Help Safe?
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,
"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."
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
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
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