What to Know About Online Therapy for Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on December 07, 2021
4 min read

Many websites and apps offer virtual access to a psychologist. Online therapy, also known as web therapy or telepsychology, can be a convenient alternative to seeing a mental health specialist in person. Unlike traditional mental health counseling, it lets you get instant help from the comfort of your own home.

While technology can make mental health therapy more accessible, researchers still don't have all the information on how telepsychology affects us. But the latest evidence shows that online therapy may be just as helpful as in-person sessions. Experts continue to look at how effective this alternative is.

Web therapy can offer help for stress, bereavement, depression, anxiety, relationship troubles, or other mental health problems. It may work better for you due to a variety of reasons, including:

It's convenient. Instead of having to drive to an office, leave work early, or deal with traffic, online therapy lets you call in or log on to your session from your own home. This can save you a lot of time and hassle if you have a busy schedule.

It can be more comfortable. Some people may feel more relaxed in their own homes when discussing personal topics. Online therapy can take away the stress of being in an unfamiliar space. Some people, especially younger adults, tend to use technology often. Online therapy may feel more natural for those who commonly communicate through email, video calls, and text messages.

It can be cost-effective. Some online therapy programs may be less expensive, compared to the in-person alternative. This is especially true if you don't plan to use insurance for your mental health therapy (since many insurance companies don't cover online therapy). Some apps or sites have financial aid programs or provide unlimited use for a weekly or monthly payment. Check with the online therapy company first to make sure the price is doable for you.

It's accessible. Online therapy makes it easier for certain groups of people to access mental health care. People who live far from a psychologist, or who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, might not be able to get to a mental health facility with ease. Web therapy can be a great choice in these cases.

You have more options. With traditional therapy, you're limited to professionals in your area. But with online therapy, you can pick a counselor anywhere in the world.

This type of therapy can be a great fit for many. But there are some things you should think about before you choose a virtual option over traditional care:

Is it right for you? Some people benefit more from in-person sessions. In online therapy, you lose aspects of nonverbal communication, like body language. These unspoken signals, like a tapping foot or fidgety hand, can help a therapist understand your overall mood. You might also miss out on the emotional connection you tend to develop with people during in-person encounters.

How do you plan to pay for the service? While some online programs may be cost-effective, other virtual options may charge the same or more than traditional in-person therapy. If you usually use insurance for health expenses, double-check that your online provider also accepts your insurance.

Is the therapist licensed? Anytime you use online services, you run the risk of unqualified providers. Always check the credentials of a company or a professional before you begin therapy. You can also use a third-party service to screen your online mental health providers.

Is the site secure? Make sure the site or app you use is safe, private, and secure. The service you use should have a feature that verifies your identity and your therapist's identity. It should also follow the rules of HIPAA, a federal law that prevents the release of your medical information without your permission.

Do you need in-person therapy? In some situations, traditional appointments in a therapist's office may still be a better option. If you have a severe mental health disorder like schizophrenia or are feeling suicidal, a therapist will be able to help you much more in-person rather than virtually.

Just like traditional therapy, it may take a few tries to find an online therapist that fits your needs. Don't be afraid to do research, ask questions, or switch therapists if needed.

To maximize your sessions, it's important that you prepare in the right ways:

Be ready to communicate your goals. Address mental health goals with your therapist. This will allow them to help you more intentionally and understand exactly what you need out of each session.

Be honest. During therapy, you may face painful or uncomfortable emotions. It's important to be honest with your counselor and work through these moments. If you aren't ready to share or talk about a topic, let them know.

Do your homework. To get the most out of therapy, you may have to do some extra work between sessions. This can help you understand and apply your sessions to real-world situations.

Check your internet. With online therapy, technical issues may interrupt an otherwise great session. Check your Wi-Fi and any other computer or phone issues you may have so that you can stop them before they interfere.

Get rid of distractions. When you're at home, different things can interrupt your therapy sessions. Kids, noisy neighbors, phone calls and texts, or other daily noises can cause you to lose focus. Find a quiet place to have your call, ask those around you to not make too much noise during your session, and mute any phone distractions.