In this age of electronic-everything, 24/7 service, and instant gratification, many patients and their therapists have wondered about the possible benefits of online therapy. Some of the benefits of online therapy are fairly obvious. Online therapy opens up the experience of psychological health care to many more individuals, who, in the past, may have suffered from lack of adequate treatment.
Pros and cons
Physical distances can be closed, and time and money can be saved by exchanging the conventional, in person, standard therapy model with a more remote one. The developments in instant messaging and virtual conferencing that can occur at any time, any place, and for almost anyone who seeks it are making huge strides in patient care. Most experts agree that there is great promise in expanding the delivery of mental health care in many ways. Not only might more people be reached, and treated, particularly in underserved or remote areas, but the privacy and ease that come along with online therapy may draw people who were reluctant to do it in the past. The possibility of treating more people in longer term care has led to a great deal of optimism among mental health researchers and providers.
Although it could be argued the artificiality of therapy across screens and great distance, will simply deepen the sense of alienation, isolation, and pain that many who suffer with mental illness already experience, others are conducting research that indicates that it can instead reach people who feared the stigma of mental illness, or for whom the embarrassment or humiliation of a personal encounter would have just been too high a price to pay.
There is also a suggestion that the online therapy methods can actually streamline the therapy process. Patients and therapists may be better able to get right to the heart of a problem when interpersonal distractions are minimised.
While it certainly does have a number of many real and important benefits, including high rates of objective effectiveness and patient satisfaction, some experts insist that the possibility of completely replacing face-to-face therapy with online therapy is a long way off in the distance.
Other researchers believe that comparing the two therapeutic modalities is an exercise in an apples-to-oranges style of analysis. They maintain that while there are certain similarities between the two, they also differ so much that they can really be seen as two entirely different techniques, each with its own set of specialities and limitations.
The potential for online therapy to employ new and emerging technology has barely been tapped, and some of the most exciting developments for new mental health treatment are in their infancy, although researchers suggest that things such as journalling and other self-reflective techniques can be employed in treatments. In the past, this would have been unwieldy or impossible, but the capabilities of technology can foster those sorts of developments.
Therapist and patient can engage in both written and spoken communication that would expand ways of processing experiences and information. And while face to face encounters have always been fleeting and ephemeral, the potential for saving material for later reflection and discussion is also compelling. After all, it is invariably the therapist who takes notes in a face to face session and the patient is left to piece it back together without that memory trigger. Capturing it in digital form may prove to be invaluable in future treatments. In short, by opening new avenues of communication, exploration, and the ability to share and replay therapeutic insights may dramatically change the shape of healthcare in ways Freud could not ever have imagined.
This brave new world, of course, has its pitfalls and drawbacks, some of which are already obvious to us – the potential for abuse, criminality and even benign malpractice is simply enormous. New ethical safeguards will need to be put into place, and best practices will have to evolve to accommodate unforeseen situations. On balance, online therapy offers exciting new potential to reach more patients and to develop new and effective treatment options. As with all ventures requiring entirely new approaches, the best strategy may be to wait and see exactly what does transpire in the future; time will tell.