Is online therapy right for you?


More than 50 million Americans live with mental illness, but less than half of them seek treatment. For many untreated individuals, getting to a mental health professional is inconvenient or too costly. For others, the idea of sitting in a strange room, talking face-to-face with someone about their mental health concerns, might feel unbearable.

The good news is that we live in a virtual age. Video conferencing connects us with coworkers, doctors, fitness instructors and teachers. Why should therapy be any different?

Online therapy, or teletherapy, provides the mental health support you may need, in the comfort of your home. Researchers looked at more than 60 studies and found that seeing a therapist virtually is just as effective as face-to-face sessions for most people with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Another 40 studies showed online therapy for treating depression to be more effective than not receiving therapy in any form.

But that doesn’t mean online therapy is right for everyone. To determine if teletherapy is a good option for you, here’s what you need to know:

Most online therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Some forms of therapy are better suited for an online format than others. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on helping people help themselves, is ideal for teletherapy and widely offered in a virtual format.

The goal of CBT is to provide people with tools and the ability to cope without necessarily needing lifelong therapy. There is no limit on how long you can receive CBT. But the American Psychological Association reports that half of patients consider themselves recovered after an average of 15 to 20 weekly sessions, and many patients and therapists prefer to extend treatment to ensure complete symptom remission.

Not everyone is a good candidate for virtual therapy

At this point, research into the effectiveness of teletherapy has mainly studied online CBT for mental health conditions that may interfere in limited ways with your daily life, such as mild or moderate forms of:

CBT does require the patient to participate in the process. Your therapist may ask you to complete “homework” between sessions or keep a journal. If you aren’t willing or able to take an active role in your treatment, CBT may not be for you.

If you have more serious mental health issues or severe symptoms that substantially interfere with your daily life and ability to function, online therapy is still more effective than no therapy or treatment. But whenever possible, people with more severe conditions should opt for face-to-face sessions with a therapist. Face-to-face meetings provide more opportunity for in-person intervention and a quick, effective response in the event of a mental health crisis.

There are different options available for online counseling

There are several ways to participate in therapy online including:

  • Traditional therapy: You’ll have hour-long sessions with a licensed therapist with limited or no contact between meetings. Most health insurance pays for this type of therapy – look for traditional providers who also provide online therapy.
  • Therapy apps: These mental health services follow a subscription model. Once you subscribe, they match you to a therapist for regular therapy sessions. You’ll also have 24/7 access to therapy, but communication outside of your sessions may be through text message and not always with the same therapist.
  • Other resources: There are other methods of mental health support online such as support groups, mental health apps and self-help resources that outline coping skills.

Benefits of teletherapy

CBT in any format can work to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression. But online therapy can make it easier for some people to get and continue therapy for mental health issues. Teletherapy can be:

  • Accessible, for people with physical impairments
  • Comforting, if you have social anxiety and prefer to be alone in the comfort of your home
  • Convenient, offering the ability to schedule sessions anytime from any location
  • Private, since you won’t see people in a waiting room

Concerns associated with online CBT

There are some drawbacks to virtual therapy that you’ll need to think about before deciding if it’s right for you. Teletherapy issues you should consider include:

  • Cybersecurity, regarding your health and financial information
  • Insurance coverage, which may or may not include online therapy depending on your specific coverage, where you live and which type of online counseling you choose
  • Limited intervention ability, making online therapy most beneficial for people with mild-to-moderate conditions
  • Missed body language cues, which typically help therapists assess your mental health
  • Technical issues such as computer malfunctions or internet outages, which may be distracting during therapy sessions
  • Therapist qualifications, as it is harder to enforce legal and ethical codes for online therapists

You can alleviate many of these concerns by asking questions and researching the therapy platform or provider you’ll be using.

Tips for finding an online therapist

Finding an online therapist may take a little trial and error. But there are some steps you can take for a more successful search:

  • Talk to your doctor: Your primary care provider (PCP) knows your health history, understands your demeanor and likely hears feedback from other patients who use teletherapy.
  • Check your insurance directory: Insurance providers typically offer a directory of licensed mental health providers and may indicate which ones do online therapy.
  • Ask a friend: Chances are good that someone you know engages in online therapy. If you feel comfortable, ask a close friend or two if they can recommend someone.
  • Find an online therapy platform you trust: Most online services ask questions to narrow down your search and match you with a therapist.

Be sure to ask questions and read any reviews available for each therapist or online service. Once you find an online therapist you feel comfortable with, learn how to get the most from an online therapy session.

If you need help getting started with online therapy, reach out to your primary care physician.