Teletherapy is seen as an inferior alternative to in-person therapy. But while it has some drawbacks, online therapy has plenty of pluses, too.
First the drawbacks: Some clients miss their therapist’s office, which they associate with safety and healing, said Jodi Aman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Rochester, N.Y. Technical difficulties—from poor internet connections to visibility issues–can interrupt sessions. Finding a private, quiet space at home can be challenging.
Still, many people prefer teletherapy. As psychologist Regine Galanti, Ph.D, pointed out, the biggest myth about teletherapy is that it’s “a plan B approach.” Many of Galanti’s clients have been doing online sessions for years. Her teen clients, in particular, like attending therapy in their own space.
Teletherapy is also convenient. “[I]t removes time barriers for people to physically attend an appointment, which provides them greater opportunity for therapeutic services,” said Craig April, Ph.D, a psychologist in Los Angeles.
In other words, you don’t have to deal with time-consuming traffic jams. You can still see your therapist during a long, demanding workday. And you might not need childcare to attend a virtual session if your kids are old enough to occupy themselves (but not old enough to be home alone).
To enhance teletherapy, clinicians use various online tools. For example, Galanti uses Google docs to help clients keep track of home assignments and work collaboratively on them. Carlene MacMillian, MD, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and founder of Brooklyn Minds, uses online card games and Zoom’s whiteboard features with younger clients.
Numerous studies have found that teletherapy is effective for a wide range of concerns, including
Teletherapy boasts a variety of benefits that are unique to virtual sessions. Here are four examples:
Online therapy helps clients make progress in real time.
At the office, when Galanti is working with a client who’s afraid of germs and hasn’t touched their doorknob in weeks, she has to assign that exposure activity for homework between sessions. With teletherapy, however, she can help her client go straight to the doorknob.
Galanti also noted that she can virtually join a client who’s struggling with depression and hasn’t left their house on a walk around the block. Clients with depression can also talk to Galanti as they’re making a healthy meal to eat.
Online therapy provides an invaluable glimpse into clients’ lives.
Clients’ bedrooms, pets, and favorite toys provide clinicians with important information that they don’t receive during in-person sessions, said Galanti, author of the book Anxiety Relief for Teens.
With online sessions, Galanti is also able to witness firsthand children’s anxiety and behavior problems—parents regularly tell her that their kids are better behaved at her office and more defiant at home.
For example, Galanti can see kids yelling at their siblings, running away from the screen, and disobeying their parents’ directions. Consequently, she can coach parents on how best to respond to their children’s behaviors right then.
Online therapy may help clients open up.
Clients may also be more willing to bring up certain topics in teletherapy that they’re too embarrassed to share in person—which has been the experience for John Duffy, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. Why the more vulnerable disclosure?
According to Duffy, “For many people in therapy, the intimacy of the therapeutic setting is necessary for the relationship to develop to the point that true change can be achieved. For some, that can only be done virtually.”
This might stem from “some defense mechanism that prevents the client from being fully open in-person, or sometimes a degree of social anxiety,” he said.
Online therapy can address struggles around online sessions.
A common myth about online therapy is that you have to be an effective phone or video communicator to reap the benefits, said April, author of the new book The Anxiety Getaway. However, if someone regularly struggles with communication, this is an important issue to explore and work through during teletherapy, he said.
In fact, clinicians regularly help clients examine issues that impede their progress in therapy, because typically issues that arise between client and clinician mirror the issues individuals have in other relationships. Which also means that improving issues within therapy can improve them outside of it, too.
Duffy has witnessed clients make all kinds of progress in teletherapy—from being able to express their anger, sadness, or grief to openly communicating with their family about issues that are bothering them to establishing critical household rules.
In short, teletherapy is an effective, evidence-based option that can lead to transformative change—just like in in-person sessions.