Online Therapy: A Preferable Option For Some Prospective Clients?

Imagine a world in which non-virtual therapy is not an option: Would you choose instead to (A) receive online therapy services? Or to (B) get advice from your local barista (or hairdresser or sister or friend, etc.)?

That’s behind the premise of the following new and humorous ad for one specific web-based coaching/therapy service. Meet Theresa, the “baristapist”:

(Disclaimer: Please note that I have no familiarity with the practice being advertised above. This post only addresses online therapy in general, not their organization.)

Pete Marquis and Jamie McCelland wrote and directed the ad. The latter told AdWeek that character Theresa “believes her true calling is therapy. We thought of her as a Jane Lynch-like character—as self-important as she is delusional. We wanted to have fun with the idea that she’s giving unlicensed advice with no accountability or concern for anyone’s long-term mental health.”

Well, if Theresa indeed represents the only other option, there’s no question that online therapy conducted by caring and certified professionals is the preferable treatment. But she’s not. So, what are some real-life reasons to choose an online shrink?

The broad answer is that online therapy does seem to fit some people’s needs better than the usual face-to-face (without a computer) kind.

Jan Hoffman, New York Times, writing in 2011: “The pragmatic benefits are obvious. ‘No parking necessary!’ touts one online therapist. Some therapists charge less for sessions since they, too, can do it from home, saving on gas and office rent. Blizzards, broken legs and business trips no longer cancel appointments. The anxiety of shrink-less August could be, dare one say…curable?”

There are also some disadvantages, however—among them, the iffiness of internet connections, concerns about privacy, and difficulties addressing the more severe mental problems.

Furthermore, many licensed therapists may actually be legally prohibited from providing services across state lines. Many, it turns out, may be trying to get around this by referring to themselves as “coaches” instead of therapists. And, as life coaches don’t have to meet the same stringent requirements as licensed therapists, anyone—even your local barista—might be tempted to sign on for this gig.

Maanvi Singh, NPR (2014), elaborates on another problem, one that’s also mentioned by Hoffman: how the anonymity desired and received by some online users can backfire. In fact, “Therapists usually don’t treat people with severe issues online, especially if they are contemplating suicide. That’s because in case of a crisis, it’s much harder for online therapists to track down their patients and get them help.” So, what if the issue of suicidality doesn’t appear immediately but does eventually arise?

Although psychologist Susan Heitler is another who sees some pitfalls regarding online therapy, she joins those above in also acknowledging its benefits as long as various considerations can be properly addressed (Psychology Today, 2014). “…(O)nline therapy of almost any sort can prove helpful to the many people who are reluctant to take time off from work to travel to a therapist’s office. Therapy during an extended coffee break, a lunch hour, immediately after work or even in the evenings all become more possible when treatment occurs via the internet.”

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