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Last updated: Jul 22, 2021
7 min read

Online therapy: uses, benefits, and options

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ashley Braun, RD, MPH

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Everyone can use some mental health support during stressful times. If you have a mental health condition, you may need ongoing support. Luckily, accessing the help you need is easier than ever with the rise of virtual mental health care. 

If talking to a trained mental health professional from the comfort of your own home sounds more appealing than visiting their office, teletherapy could be the right option for you. 

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What is mental health care?

Your mental health is your emotional, social, and psychological well-being. It impacts your thoughts, feelings, actions, and quality of life. Mental health care helps you keep your mental health at its best, and it provides support when you’re trying to manage mental health conditions or trying times. You can get mental health services from a range of trained mental health professionals, such as:

  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Psychotherapists
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW)
  • Licensed therapists
  • Licensed counselors 

These mental health professionals can help people with many conditions or challenges affecting their daily life, including:

There is still a lot of stigma about asking for help regarding mental health, so many people never get care or only ask for treatment when they are in a crisis. Virtual mental health care may make it easier for people to ask for help. Meeting online from the privacy of your own home can feel less vulnerable than visiting a doctor’s office in person. Plus, it’s a convenient option if taking time off of work for appointments is a challenge. 

Types of mental health care available virtually

Telehealth services have grown in popularity over the past few years due to their convenience and improved access to healthcare services. Telehealth includes a branch of telemedicine called telepsychiatry or mental health teletherapy, focusing on mental health. 

Nowadays, you can get almost all types of services virtually. There are several types of online psychiatry and mental health services available, including:

Psychiatric evaluations and diagnosis

A psychiatric evaluation is an assessment by a psychiatrist or other healthcare provider. It’s similar to a physical exam by a medical doctor, except the provider is assessing your mental health. 

The healthcare provider will gather information about your symptoms, when they occur, how often, and how the symptoms impact your relationships and ability to complete your regular daily tasks. 

Here are some examples of questions they may ask during a psychiatric evaluation:

  • When did your symptoms start?
  • Have you or anyone in your family been diagnosed with a mental health condition?
  • How do you sleep?
  • How is your appetite?
  • Do you frequently feel irritable?
  • How is your mood?
  • Do you ever experience worry that is difficult to control?

Patient education

Once your healthcare provider determines what’s causing your symptoms, they can help educate you about your condition virtually and develop a treatment plan. 

Patient education helps you understand your mental health condition, your symptoms, and methods to manage it. Your mental health provider will likely educate you during your appointment, answer your questions, and direct you to other educational resources. 

During this process, you will also learn about the benefits and risks of treatment options to create a plan that works for you.

Medication management

Many medications may be prescribed virtually, and your healthcare provider can send the prescription to your local pharmacy. Some telepsychiatry platforms also offer shipping right to your door. Your provider can also adjust and manage the medication during virtual appointments. 

Medication is an integral part of getting some types of mental health conditions under control. Types of medications prescribed to treat mental illnesses include:

For some types of medications, your healthcare provider may want to monitor your bloodwork. This means that you may still need to visit a lab for in-person testing, although some telehealth platforms can even mail a testing kit to you or send someone to your home to draw blood.

Some state laws limit the types of medications that are allowed to be prescribed online, but your healthcare provider will help you create the right plan for your situation.

Therapy

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is one of the most common forms used by mental health professionals. Types of psychotherapy include (Cook, 2017): 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying negative thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors and learning coping strategies to develop new beliefs and behaviors.
  • Psychodynamic therapy focuses on the root of emotional challenges with self-reflection and examining problem patterns.
  • Dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) focuses on coping with intense emotions through mindfulness, acceptance, and other coping strategies. 
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) focuses on improving social functioning and your relationships with others.

Therapy can help with managing mental illness and coping with the stresses of everyday life. Therapy can help you with:

  • Stress management
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Any other mental health and wellness issue

How does virtual therapy work?

During the appointment, you’ll meet with your online therapist through a phone call, video meeting, or messaging service. The sessions are similar to an in-person appointment, but instead of waiting in a waiting room for the appointment to start, you can stay in the comfort of your own home.

Your healthcare provider should use a HIPAA-compliant service to conduct virtual appointments to maintain your privacy. They will likely provide you with directions on how to use their online services to access your appointment. 

Video appointments resemble a meeting on any video platform (like Zoom or FaceTime), where you can talk while seeing each other’s faces without actually being face-to-face. During the online counseling session, your therapist may assign worksheets or questionnaires as homework between sessions, just like in traditional therapy. 

Individual, group, and couples therapy can all be done through virtual appointments. Some virtual therapy services offer 24/7 unlimited messaging instead of or in addition to live video sessions so that you can get support whenever you need it. 

Your health insurance company may cover your virtual therapy appointments. Contact your plan to find out about your coverage.

Benefits of virtual mental health services

Virtual services can help improve access to mental health care, especially for people in rural areas, without transportation, and people with conditions that make it difficult to travel (Kumar, 2017). 

Even for people with fewer barriers to services, virtual appointments are still more convenient. You don’t have to spend time driving to the therapist’s office or sitting in the waiting room, so you only need to plan for the time of your appointment and computer setup. 

Because of the stigma that unfortunately persists around mental health, you may prefer the added privacy of a virtual appointment. Some people dread being seen walking into the office or sitting with other patients in the waiting room of a therapist’s office. A virtual appointment can feel more private since you will only be seeing your healthcare provider. 

Virtual appointments may also save money. Research suggests virtual therapy treatment is more cost-effective than in-person appointments (Kumar, 2017). This could be because it often saves time for both the provider and the patient—the provider can see more people, and the patient doesn’t need to take as much time off work. 

The improved access to care may increase mental health care, which might decrease the number of crises and hospitalizations, plus lower the risk of developing additional conditions.

Disadvantages of virtual mental health care

While there are benefits to using online psychiatry services, there are some possible disadvantages that should be considered, such as:

  • Technology issues: Poor internet connection, trouble signing into the service, sound problems, and other technical difficulties may interfere with the quality of care.
  • Privacy: Your provider should be using an encrypted HIPAA compliant online therapy platform. Still, there is the risk the platform could be hacked and information stolen.
  • May feel impersonal: Trust is essential to the success of therapy. Some people may have a more challenging time connecting when meeting virtually, which could interfere with their progress and quality of care.

Are online therapy and virtual mental health services effective?

Yes, virtual appointments can be just as effective at treating mental health conditions as face-to-face therapy (Kumar, 2017; Payne, 2020). A 2019 study showed people using virtual mental health services reduced the severity of their depression symptoms (Marcelle, 2019).

Online therapy could even be more effective than traditional therapy for some people, especially for people who:

  • Feel nervous going to an office in-person
  • Have challenges making it to appointments due to mobility, work schedule, or family obligations

Who is a good candidate for virtual mental health services?

Most services will specify if there are conditions they will or won’t work with. If you’re comfortable with technology or willing to learn, you can likely receive therapy virtually. Conditions that may be effectively managed virtually include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Sometimes, in-person therapy or inpatient hospitalizations may be more appropriate. People with suicidal thoughts, psychosis, and very severe symptoms may be better-treated face-to-face. 

If you’re unsure which option is best for you, talk with your healthcare provider about what treatment plan they recommend. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-4357) is a free service, available 24/7 to connect you with local services and provide information.

How to prepare for a virtual therapy appointment

Your provider will give you instructions to help prepare for your appointment and whether you need to have anything specific nearby. Here are some tips to help your mental health teletherapy appointment go smoothly:

  • Check the strength of the internet or phone connection in the area you plan to have the appointment.
  • Choose a quiet area where you won’t be disrupted.
  • Turn off the TV, phone, music, or anything that could be distracting.
  • If you have children or pets, ask your partner, family, or friend to help during the appointment to limit interruptions.
  • Ensure your device is fully charged or plugged in to avoid it dying during the appointment.
  • Write down any concerns or questions you want to ask about before the appointment to help you remember.
  • Test your speaker and audio before the appointment.

While virtual mental health care services won’t be right for everyone, it may be an excellent option to help some people increase their access to effective care. If you’re considering online therapy, don’t hesitate to see if it will be a good fit for you.

References

  1. Cockburn N, Pradhan A, Taing MW, Kisely S, & Ford PJ. (2017). Oral health impacts of medications used to treat mental illness. Journal of Affective Disorders, 223, 184–193. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.07.037. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28759866/
  2. Cook SC, Schwartz AC, & Kaslow NJ. (2017). Evidence-based psychotherapy: advantages and challenges. Neurotherapeutics: The Journal of The American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 14(3), 537–545. doi: 10.1007/s13311-017-0549-4. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5509639/
  3. Kumar V, Sattar Y, Bseiso A, Khan S, & Rutkofsky IH. (2017). The effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy in treatment of psychiatric disorders. Cureus, 9(8), e1626. doi: 10.7759/cureus.1626. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5659300/
  4. Marcelle ET, Nolting L, Hinshaw SP, & Aguilera A. (2019). Effectiveness of a multimodal digital psychotherapy platform for adult depression: a naturalistic feasibility study. Journal of Medical Internet Research mHealth and uHealth, 7(1), e10948. doi: 10.2196/10948. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6364202/
  5. Payne L, Flannery H, Kambakara GC, Daniilidi X, Hitchcock M, Lambert D, et al. (2020). Business as usual? psychological support at a distance. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 25(3), 672–686. doi: 10.1177/1359104520937378. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7370649/