As an online therapist, I never really question the importance of online counselling: I see first-hand the benefits it can bring. That said, I realize that many people might ask, why is online counselling important?
Online counselling is important because it opens up access to mental health services. You no longer need to choose a therapist who is based nearby. Instead, you can select a counsellor based on their skills, specialisms, and availability – not just their geographical location. This provides much greater choice, which is important because it means you can receive therapy that is more suited to your unique needs.
Let’s look at how online counselling is, and has been, significant in some key areas.
How is online counselling important for your mental health?
We know that when people find the right type of counselling for their needs, it can be transformative. Online counselling is no different. It can help people with:
- tackling difficult present-moment life choices
- healing past trauma
- understanding and finding ways of managing stress and anxiety
- making sense of their identity and how they relate to the world around them
- recognizing and developing feelings of self-worth, self-love, and self-respect
- establishing a self-care routine
- forming healthy relationships and letting go of toxic or unhealthy relationships
- breaking unhealthy habits and forming new healthier ones
- coping through a particularly difficult life event such as bereavement, the end of a relationship, a medical diagnosis or loss
Online counselling can be an essential part of supporting your own mental health when you feel that things are particularly difficult to handle using your existing resources or support networks.
However, counselling through the internet has had a pretty massive impact over the past few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
How is online counselling important during Covid-19?
Online counselling has been important throughout the Covid-19 pandemic because it has ensured that people have been able to stay in touch with, or establish a new relationship with, a professional mental health counsellor.
Restrictions on whom you can meet, where, how often, and for how long have changed on a sometimes-daily basis. Initially, this meant a lot of confusion surrounding whether it was possible to meet a counsellor in person or if you needed to cancel or rearrange your sessions.
Counsellors, too, found it confusing. Some therapists were worried about the risk of having clients visiting them in-person (should either be a carrier of the virus). In addition, many thought that the potential need to wear a mask may interfere with the therapeutic process.
This created a massive possibility for online counselling to step in and allow counselling to continue, without affecting the relationship between therapist and client. Many therapists were concerned about what it would do to their practice.
Few counsellors had received any training whatsoever about using the internet to connect with clients – apart from perhaps how to schedule and handle issues via email. Added to that a strong sense among large swathes of therapists that virtual connection = bad, whereas in-person connection = good, and you can imagine how much resistance there was to working online. However, over the months – and years – that followed, the legitimacy and importance of online counselling has become evident to even some of its harshest critics. Therapists who once thought that it was impossible to empathize with someone at-distance can connect with so much of the client during a session via webcam.
How is online counselling important for overlooked groups?
Online counselling provides people from minority groups – based on race, gender, age, sexuality, disability, religion, and so on – to access counsellors who share some of these characteristics or who specialize in areas that are relevant to a client’s needs. As a client, this means that you are no longer limited by the counsellors who you can physically access – resulting in much greater choice.
Whilst all counsellors are trained to work with people as individuals, embracing difference and diversity, it can still feel important to find a therapist who you will trust will understand your situation so that they do not inadvertently offend you.
For some, this comes through finding a therapist who matches some of your own personal characteristics (such as seeking a therapist who is a mother, non-binary, or a wheelchair user, for example). Or it may come through seeking a counsellor who specializes in a specific area of need (for instance, bereavement, childhood trauma, or gender identity).
Online counselling allows you to connect with a counsellor who specializes in your area of need or who shares some of your identity characteristics. This might mean that you may feel you are free to talk about aspects of your identity without having to describe them or explain them. It may also mean that you feel safer or more supported because you believe that the therapist themselves may also have experienced similar discrimination.
It’s worth noting that it is not always the case.
If we think about the theory of intersectionality, we must consider that we do not have one type of identifier like gender (such as man, woman, non-binary, and so on) or ethnicity (such as white-Irish, African-Caribbean, and so on). In fact, there are many ways we can consider our identity: age, physical ability, education, language of origin, class, religion, sexuality, and so on. And then, we need to think about how these intersect (for instance, that sexism and racism compounds for a Black woman).
In any one town or city, even as large as London, it might not be possible to have therapists who represent enough intersections as there are clients. In reality, this may never be possible. But it is possible that finding a therapist who more closely aligns with your own identity is possible when searching for a counsellor online.
How is online counselling important to people who struggle or cannot access face-to-face counselling?
By not imposing physical demands on the client, online counselling makes accessing therapy easier, less time-consuming and less stressful. This means that people with restricted mobility, limited means of transport, or problems that prevent them from leaving home, can still access mental health support from a qualified professional.
Whilst attending a therapist’s office may be a simple endeavour for many, for others it can require a huge amount of planning and cost.
I remember a client in her early seventies, who would take two buses and a round trip of just shy of four hours for her weekly 50-minute face-to-face therapy session with me. It was physically demanding for her yet due to the limited availability of free counselling in the area, the service I was working for was her only choice.
Online counselling is important for people who cannot simply show up at a therapist’s consultation room – and for those who may not feel that they are ready, too. Previously, certain counsellors may have provided telephone support or even in-home visits, but now that more and more therapists are offering counselling sessions online, the possibility has opened up.
This ease of access is important because it reduces a barrier to accessing therapy. You’re able to access your therapy sessions from a place that you know well and feel comfortable talking from.
Are there arguments against the importance of online counselling?
Absolutely. Even though we have seen greater access to mental health services, the importance of offering online counselling must also be seen in the context of what is lost as a result of these gains.
For instance, take the client in her seventies who I mentioned earlier. She actually spoke of how attending face-to-face counselling gave her an enjoyable reason to get out of the house for the day.
She found the journey to and from the therapy room long, but she valued the opportunity to meet someone once a week and talk about her problems in person. For now, it is difficult to see how online counselling could replicate this benefit.
Furthermore, there are risks that counselling services will see the development of online counselling as a way to cut costs or increase efficiency. This could result in lower standards of service, and less attentive levels of care.
Online counselling cannot and should not replace face-to-face counselling: the two must co-exist so that you can find the support that is best suited to your needs at a given moment in your life.
Conclusion: online counselling is important but no more important than face-to-face counselling
Online counselling has been incredibly important for the advancement of access to mental health support, and has provided an essential service to people during the pandemic.
Being able to see a therapist online now seems commonplace. But for a long time, online counselling was a niche – and often looked down on – part of the psychotherapeutic family. It was judged for having insufficient contact and an absence of verbal and non-verbal cues between the therapist and client.
The pandemic has illustrated how anything can be changed, given enough pressure to do so.
What used to be considered as an entirely face-to-face experience has gained legitimacy as a viable and important way of accessing mental health support.
The importance of online counselling must not overshadow the need to maintain, support, and grow, existing face-to-face counselling and mental health support.
Neither is more important than the other.
Counselling is essential because it helps people make sense of their past, accept their present and move with greater presence into the future.
Photos by Marjan Grabowski & James A. Molnar