Virtual therapy, also called online therapy, is a type of mental health treatment that you can do from your own home. All you need is an internet connection, a webcam and microphone (built-in or external) to access the online software. You can talk to your therapist face to face and even share content and media depending on which platform you’re using.
It’s been used to help with a variety of mental health issues, including PTSD, relationship problems, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and addiction issues. Even young children with emotional and behavioral issues can benefit from virtual therapy.
But as positive as this service is, there are also some limitations. If you’re considering virtual therapy, think about the pros and cons before diving in.
Disclaimer: the following is intended as information only and should not be used to diagnose or treat any condition, including mental health concerns. Talk to a doctor if you’re dealing with mental health struggles. You can also call or text 988 to reach the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
The Pros of Virtual Therapy
One major advantage to doing therapy online is convenience. Instead of having to travel to a physical office, you can access therapy from the comfort of your own space.
It’s a convenient option for patients who can’t travel or have trouble getting to a physical office, especially young children. Virtual therapy is also an easy and accessible option if you live in a rural area, where finding a therapist can be tough or even impossible.
No one likes waiting in a waiting room, and with virtual therapy, you don’t have to. Even if there’s a small wait ahead of your appointment, you can spend that time on your own couch. This convenience also makes it possible to keep appointments when you’re sick or otherwise unable to leave your house.
And since sessions are done remotely, you have greater flexibility in scheduling them in the first place. This also reduces wait times associated with traditional therapies and cuts down on the overall cost of treatment.
Along the same lines as convenience, virtual therapy gives you greater flexibility in setting appointments and getting the kind of care you need.
The ability to adjust therapy sessions, treatment plans and virtual sessions according to a patient’s schedule is a significant benefit for both provider and patient. If, for example, you’re experiencing a particularly stressful time, you can take breaks between sessions or have shorter sessions more frequently. This flexibility allows you to move at your own pace without feeling pressured by a therapist’s schedule (or your own).
The therapists or services that offer virtual care tend to have have high-quality internet connections and good phone lines. This allows them to respond quickly to questions. They may also be available more readily than a traditional therapist who only works standard business hours.
Online therapy also lets you ask questions in real time and gives therapists a chance to provide immediate feedback. This is unique to virtual therapy and may help patients to feel more in control of their treatment.
Getting help for mental health concerns is hard. Even as society has become more willing to talk about mental health, you might still struggle with the decision to get help. Virtual therapy may be the answer. This form of treatment allows you to talk about sensitive topics in your own space, in a more intimate way, without the potential for bumping into other people in the waiting room.
Online therapy also offers patients a discreet and confidential way to share their thoughts and feelings with their therapist. And if you’re using a therapy service instead of a local therapist, you also gain the benefit of online anonymity. You might even feel a little freer talking to a virtual stranger than you would talking to someone in person.
This benefit is especially helpful to people with social anxiety or other interpersonal problems that make face-to-face contact harder. It may also help these patients develop more confidence for dealing with people in real life.
Virtual therapy provides a different treatment experience from traditional in-person therapy. You and your therapist can more easily share items, images or music that may be hard for you to express in words. Art therapy isn’t new, but it might be easier to explore these more creative outlets online, where you have easy access to a new browser window and can share media that helps with your sessions.
Another benefit of virtual therapy is that patients have access to more specialized treatments than they would at a traditional therapist’s office. With virtual visits, therapists can provide evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) without the need for long waiting periods or expensive in-office appointments.
Traditional mental health care can be pricey, even more expensive than care that you get for physical problems. And with a shortage of providers, your options might be limited even if you have health insurance to pick up some of the bill.
Virtual therapy may be a more affordable option — whether you have health insurance or not. Some services charge flat fees for appointments that might be lower than you’d pay out of pocket for insurance-covered care. Others might have sliding scale payment rates to help people with lower incomes or no insurance get care.
Plus, you won’t have to worry about taking time off work for an appointment or traveling to an office across town. You may also be able to enroll in a monthly payment plan to cut down on the cost even further.
The Cons of Virtual Therapy
Virtual therapy isn’t without its risks, though. As great as this option can be for convenience and cost, online therapy comes with some downsides you need to keep in mind. This isn’t to say you should avoid virtual therapy because of the risks. But knowing about them ahead of time can help you prepare and take proactive steps to mitigate those risks.
It’s a longstanding question when it comes to the internet: how safe is your information online, really? This question exists in the realm of online therapy, too. Because no matter how secure the network and how advanced the technology, there’s always room for error — or worse. When you do virtual therapy, you run the risk of having personal and sensitive information, like your name, address and treatment details, floating around in cyberspace.
This isn’t unique to virtual therapy, of course. If your medical provider uses electronic records in any form, you may also face this risk anyway. But because virtual therapy depends on the internet, it may pose a greater threat. That’s especially true if you opt for a service or provider who doesn’t stay on top of their cybersecurity.
To combat this, ask questions about how your information is shared and stored. You probably don’t read the Terms and Conditions (does anyone?), but you should at least check to make sure your info is being kept as private as it can be.
There’s something to be said for talking to someone online. Going virtual may not give you the same feeling as having a face-to-face session with a therapist. For some, sessions may feel less personal and intimate than if they happened in an office.
That might be because facial and body language are hard to convey through an internet chat. And without these key communication indicators, you might struggle to form the right connections with your therapist. Empathy can be harder to foster in an online setting.
Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, and that’s great. But if you’re someone who needs to see a person’s body language to communicate, then virtual therapy may present some shortcomings for you. And that’s okay. Getting help online isn’t for everyone.
As reliable as technology is these days, it’s not perfect. And when your treatment sessions depend on a solid and speedy internet connection, you’re at the mercy of technology when it comes to getting care. That can sometimes be a problem, particularly if you’re in a rural area without as much access to high-speed connections.
It’s easier for some things to get lost in translation if you’re not talking face to face with another human. That’s true whether you’re texting or whether you’re on a live video call. Because so much of therapy depends on good communication, the technology platform matters. Make sure any therapist you see uses up-to-date connections and that she has the tools or IT support available to fix problems quickly.
There’s a learning curve to technology. And while a lot of people can learn new forms of technology relatively easily these days, there are still gaps. This includes older populations, people who are naturally resistant to technology and people with learning disabilities. It might be second-nature for someone in the Gen Z population to use app-based therapy, for example, but this may not work for everyone.
One solution here is to have a tech-savvy family member or friend help set up the app or online system ahead of the first session. Over time, some people may find that they can use these tools effectively. And if not, they can always return to in-person care.
Finally, virtual therapy can be great for a wide range of situations, but it may not be effective for some concerns, including more severe forms of mental illness. That’s because more severe mental illness might require more regular monitoring and medication, and online therapy’s limitations could cause a disruption in care.
If you have a chronic mental illness or suspect you do, talk to your doctor first about whether in-person or virtual therapy may be right for you. And if you do decide to see an online therapist, make sure he’s licensed to practice in your state and has experience in the area in which you’re struggling.
Virtual therapy offers a lot of advantages, from convenience and flexibility to affordability and unique treatment options. But it’s not without its drawbacks. Consider these pros and cons carefully, find a qualified therapist, and get the help you need — whether it’s online or not.