As the lockdown period continues, many are feeling the pressure. Financial troubles, job losses, social isolation and fears for the health of family and friends are compounding and the effects on mental health cannot be denied. Medical experts warn of a looming mental health crisis in the coming months due to our current unprecedented circumstances. Recent figures suggest that 13% of the global population are living with a mental health disorder. Those with pre-existing issues may see their symptoms exacerbated while others may develop anxiety or depression sparked by feelings of isolation.

Technology has made it easier than ever before to receive mental health support online and it has been reported that online counselling services have seen a massive uptick in sign-ups. Talkspace, a US based online therapy provider has seen a 65% increase in contact over the past month. Online therapy has been in existence for years, but was often viewed as a supplementary option for face to face counselling sessions. Now online therapy resources are growing in popularity, with video sessions, apps and text services available. Therapy accounts are even popping up on Instagram.

There are a number of key variables which contribute to the effectiveness of online treatments. These include the severity of the disorder, the client’s attitude and their desired outcomes. Online therapy may be a viable option for people suffering with milder forms of anxiety, panic or depression. Similarly, for anyone who has experienced loss or illness, online therapists may be able to guide them through coping strategies to help them out in the short term.

Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has also risen to prominence in the form of apps, offering a fast and efficient way to challenge negative thoughts. CBT is an effective treatment and in a 2008 study by Barak et al. it was found to be the most effective form of online treatment. Woebot is a popular example, helping users to process difficult emotions by working through cognitive behavioural exercises via the app. Quirk and Youper provide a similar model and offer words of encouragement using AI technology. These apps are designed to record and re-wire negative thought patterns and train your brain to think differently. Normally CBT would be supervised by a trained professional however being able to access these tools for free is invaluable to those suffering from mental health issues. Cost has often been a major barrier to people seeking mental health support and online modalities offer a more cost effective option.

For those who fear stigma for seeking treatment, online sessions offer privacy and allow patients to receive support from the comfort of their own homes. The anonymity granted by virtual sessions may appeal to those who classically struggle to seek help. In a 2004 study, Rochlen et al found that men who experienced restrictive emotionality, a fear of expressing emotions, felt more comfortable with online counselling than in person treatment. Clients may feel more comfortable disclosing personal information due to the barrier afforded by the screen. Furthermore, an online therapist need not be from the client’s locality and this distance can put some at ease. Knowing that the counsellor has no knowledge of their inner life, or will not be able to relay this information to their friends or family may lead to increased self-disclosure.

Research has shown attitudes to online therapy are positive but does it get results? A 2012 study compared the results of two groups, one receiving therapy over the phone and the other receiving traditional in-person therapy. While the phone therapy patients stayed with the therapy longer, a larger percentage of them reported depressive symptoms six months later. The face to face patients appear to have received more long lasting benefits, however did find it more difficult to maintain commitment to the therapy sessions. There are a range of explanations for this. People respond positively to facial expressions and the missing human element on online or phone therapies may lead to a weaker intimate connection. However some patients may find eye contact with a therapist awkward and may favour the relative anonymity offered by online options, and find it easier to open up. Further meta-analyses are needed to delve into the outcomes of the various modalities of online therapy but presently, the results look promising.

While the current wave of online therapy demand may subside after the covid crisis de-escalates, it paves the way for new models of treatment for those in distress. Research points to a blend of online and face to face treatment garnering the best results. But as we adjust to our new shelter-in-place normal, it may be the perfect opportunity to give online therapy a try. Check out this informational video from Better Health to see if it may be a suitable option for you.

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