When the demand for more convenient and accessible ways to access qualified therapists became large enough, several virtual mental health options were brought to market. Online counseling services are fairly popular already and no longer brand-new — Talkspace was founded in 2012 and BetterHelp in 2013 — but COVID-19 has caused a rapid increase in their adoption.
This has expedited a conversation in the mental health treatment community. Online mental health services can provide benefits to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to affordable counseling, but can they be a true replacement for the traditional models of one-on-one counseling? If not, where do they fall short? In this piece, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of virtual mental health options.
The Need for Accessible Care
The concept of remote therapy options is not without validity. Not everyone has the time to devote to intensive therapy. They can’t afford to sacrifice work, school or other responsibilities to receive in-person therapy on a basis that would be most beneficial to them.
Some people may not even have access to convenient, high-quality mental health services. A report by the National Council of Behavioral Health found that 38% of Americans had to wait a week or more for an appointment with a mental health provider, and 46% had to drive an hour or more to see a therapist who met their needs.
The Problem with Poor Access to Mental Health Services
Millions of people in the United States suffer from mental health disorders, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, and there’s no shortage of reasons why someone would have a hard time getting access. The consequences when a mental health disorder goes untreated — no matter how minor it is — can be dire.
First, if you’re struggling with your mental health and you don’t get the right treatment, it’s highly likely your issues will get worse. Minor disorders can progress to major ones or manifest in new ways. Major disorders can become even more disruptive to a person’s life.
Chronic mental health problems can cause people to change their lifestyle and neglect their physical health, increasing the risk for a range of new physical illnesses and disorders. They can make you less equipped to find or keep employment, which increases the likelihood of poverty and homelessness.
Fast-forward to an age when COVID-19 has changed the way we access many of the things we rely on. More food and goods are ordered online than ever before. School, work and happy hours are taking place over video chat — an avenue that may open us up to additional mental health risks — and isolation has had an impact on countless individuals. No matter what the future looks like, mental health services need to be a part of it, and while providers like FHE Health continue to work tirelessly to provide a safe place to get the help you need, not everyone has access to quality care.
The Pros and Cons of Remote Therapy
The data is clear — these factors clearly illustrate the need for better, more widely available treatment that meets people in need where they are, rather than asking them to pass unrealistic barriers to access. But are virtual mental health services the answer? Here are the benefits and drawbacks of meeting with a virtual psychiatrist instead of a real one, in-person, face-to-face.
Pros of Virtual Mental Health Care
There are several key benefits that telehealth counseling provides:
These services provide access to necessary care. Distance and affordability can be critical factors that keep a person from seeking and receiving the care they need to live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Online counseling means flexible meetings whenever and wherever they’re needed, typically offered on a subscription plan that’s more affordable than in-person care. According to Psychology Today, studies have shown that online therapy is up to 7.8 times less expensive than face-to-face treatment. Advancements in health care policy have made mental health services much more affordable for people with insurance, but for those who still remain without coverage, online therapy can be a more affordable alternative.
Online therapists are easier for some people to talk to. The stigma of mental health is still prevalent, despite significant strides made in normalizing asking for help. Many people won’t go to treatment because they fear admitting that they need help or don’t want someone they know to see them there. Despite their therapist’s role as a professionally trained and nonjudgmental partner, they may also be unwilling to share sensitive or personal information in a face-to-face setting.
Some online therapy services allow patients to register anonymously. This can help someone who is anxious or reluctant to share personal information or seek physical treatment for their issues to lower their guard and accept the help they need.
Cons of Virtual Therapy
There are also some drawbacks that people considering online therapy need to be aware of:
Online therapy may not be able to help with complex issues. There’s a concept called the Therapeutic Alliance that describes the bond that occurs between a patient and a quality therapist. This involves a process from both sides of a counseling relationship showing full trust and is difficult to get over a computer screen, a phone line or a text conversation. This means that if you have particularly complex issues, or you’re having a crisis or suicidal event, virtual therapy may fall short in the options it provides to meet your needs.
Online therapists may not be able to provide the best diagnosis for you. Despite their best intentions, virtual counselors can only do so much. They can listen to your problems and suggest solutions, but without in-person interaction, they may miss physical signs and body language that their training has taught them to interpret.
How to Find the Right Option for You
So, does using a virtual mental health service provide a solution for patients in need of care? The answer isn’t black or white. For those who struggle with limited access or the lack of financial resources to pay for a full, in-person treatment experience, online therapy may be the best option, but for the best possible outcomes, we still recommend doing therapy the time-tested way.
For more information and to learn about the options we offer for therapy, contact FHE Rehab today.