Online therapy is by no means a new phenomenon. Even before the pandemic made it popular, people and therapists alike were already looking at ways to streamline the process for many different reasons. But is online therapy effective and if yes what are some of its pros and cons?

The pros and cons of online therapy and how to improve upon it

If you have been following the news and trends of and around mental health you probably already know about a surge in the phenomenon of online therapy. While it was also "a thing" even before Covid, online therapy really kicked off during the pandemic, the same way a lot of other services did that also went online. From work to school and other activities, people were tying to stay safe by moving to the online medium as much as they could. But with the increase in popularity of online therapy also came scrutiny. Was it any good? Did it actually help? Online learning was already being frowned upon as kids of all ages were no longer paying attention and did not really listen to their teachers. So what about online therapy? Well let's explore some of the pros and cons of such a practice and see if its for you or not.

The pros of online therapy

I guess the first question that comes to many people's minds when it comes to online therapy is: does it actually work. And the simple answer to that is that, yes, yes it does! Depending on what difficulty you are currently facing when it comes to your mental health it can actually work really well. Numerous studies have shown that for mild cases of depression, some anxiety disorders and even panic attacks, online therapy can be as effective as a face-to-face interaction.

There is also the added benefit of convenience as a big pro when it comes to online therapy. You could use your phone, tablet, home computer or even the TV. With today's technological advancement a lot of your mobile devices or electronic devices will give you the possibility to communicate with someone else either via voice or voice and video. This if course means that geographical limitations no longer apply to a large degree. As long as you have internet or phone signal you can undergo online therapy virtually anywhere including the comfort of your own home. This aspect might be one if not the most attractive aspect of online therapy. People live busy lives and in today's society even more so. Nobody has time to travel trough busy traffic to a designated building to undergo therapy. So we know that it can work and that it is also very accessible and convenient, what else does online therapy have as an advantage over traditional methods? Another aspect that will greatly impact people's favorable view is the fact that online therapy will generally be cheaper than the face-to-face alternative. The reasons for this are simple: the mental health professionals will no longer need to rent office space for their practice or spend fuel in traffic trying to get to work. They can work from the comfort of their own home from a simple device like their mobile phone or tablet. This will drive down the price and make therapy more affordable.

As for what type of therapy is more effective for you, the consensus among mental health professionals seems to be that face-to-face is still the most effective followed by a video call and lastly audio only. Video calls are important since it gives the therapist the opportunity to observe that changes on the patient's emotions on their face and body language. This can help them stir the conversation and treatment in order to make it more effective. But audio only online therapy also has its advantages as studies show that people will let go of their inhibitions a lot more when not having to deal face-to-face with another person. The anonymity factor, thus, can also be counted as a pro when it comes to this type of medium for therapy treatment.

The cons of online therapy

Unfortunately it is not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to undergoing therapy using the internet. As great as the advantages are there are also some serious negatives that might turn people away from seeking such method of treatment. The first problem that we should mention is the limited amount of conditions that can be treated using this method. Not only that the conditions also can't be severe, otherwise online therapy will most likely fail.

In a way online therapy can be considered a double edged sword. The same way it gives people the ability to be more uninhibited and share their pain more easily it also makes the connection with their therapist a lot more superficial. Seeing someone trough a screen is not the same as talking face-to-face. Sure it might do wonders for conditions that are not yet severe but for others a more personal connection is needed. Of course we know that that is also what scares a lot of people: having to talk face-to-face with a therapist. Those are the same people that would gladly choose to undergo therapy via voice only or trough a screen but that might also not be good enough for their condition. Studies also show that for a lot of mental health problems related to anxiety disorders, PTSD, phobias, panic attacks, etc. need exposure therapy in order to be cured most effectively. Exposure therapy basically means exposing the patient gradually and safely to the object of their fears/trauma in order to make them face it and resolve the problem with it. You have probably already seen in movies or at least head of doctors using props like snakes or spiders in order to try and cure phobias in patients. That type of treatment which is essential in treating so many conditions could never be done using online therapy. Another con when it comes to getting therapy treatment online is literary a "con". We all know that scams exist, from simple to elaborate and unfortunately a lot of the scam artists take advantage of the most vulnerable of us.

It is a lot easier to pretend to be a therapist online in order to trick vulnerable people out of their money. Face-to-face, they would need a building and a lot of resources, whereas online they would only need their phone and a quickly put together website which is easy to do nowadays. And let's be honest most people that would look for help online will not spend time to see if the mental health professional/s have practice licenses and are legitimate or if the website looks sketchy or not. Aside from people just sending money and not receiving any callback for your appointment you could actually get into a therapy session with one of these scam artists and not receive any help. They would actually try to extract other valuable information from you which can further be used to get more money out of you or your family.

Online therapy also seem to attract the "less qualified" in the field of mental health, at least in general. The overall perception around it is also bad and often online therapy is treated as a joke. This sentiment is beginning to slowly change but it might take time until both patients and professionals will consider this new medium with more enthusiasm.

So what can we do in order to improve online therapy treatment?

The answer may surprise you. A lot of the negatives can be addressed by using the online medium but with a different approach, namely: virtual reality. Let's break it down, shall we? First the most important aspect of any treatment, it's efficacy, is already documented as being very high with the use of virtual reality. The reason is simple. Unlike a video or audio call, virtual reality puts the patient into an immersive environment which can count as exposure therapy. In fact virtual reality exposure therapy has been researched and tested for quite a while now, constantly making improvements to the treatment's viability.

It seems that our brains can still perceive something as scary or dangerous even if they know it is not real. This of course is known to everyone who ever got scared watching a horror film or playing a scary video game. But virtual reality pushes the experience even further by immersing the individual in another world in which they can walk/look around and interact with objects. This makes it very easy for mental health professionals to help their patients with anxiety, phobias and PTSD related conditions. Of course treatment doesn't just stop at these problems. Trials and research made into virtual reality therapy has successfully developed programs that can help with all manner of mental health problems from depression to motor function rehabilitation, pain management and even eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

So we already established that virtual reality eliminates the con of not being effective when it comes to online therapy but what else can it do? Well, the same as other online treatment methods, it is highly convenient and accessible since you can also undergo virtual reality therapy treatment from anywhere with an internet connection, including, of course, the comfort of your own home. Also since it requires specialized apps and gear and it's not just a video call, virtual reality will not attract as many scam artists as regular online therapy does since it is a lot harder to pull a scam with this type of medium.

With advancements quickly being made in the world of virtual reality we hope to see this new method of treatment alleviate some of the increase in mental health problems which we are witnessing today and maybe even reverse the tide. And as much as some may frown at the thought of any type of online medium being used for treatment, it is, to quote a famous movie line: "inevitable" that more and more people and industries will use this medium for its convenience and versatility.

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Julian Sanda
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