Not just second best: Giving due regard to online counselling
29th May, 2012
In recent years, counselling/therapy* via the internet, either through type chat or video conferencing is gaining momentum and popularity. When I share the fact of being an online practitioner with colleagues and friends I receive reactions ranging from surprise ("Oh, I didn't know there was such a thing!") to doubt ("Surely it can't work as well as face to face counselling!"). Because of it being a relatively new wave in the therapy profession, there may be a tendency to be suspicious of it or assume that it is a last resort, only for those who are unable to access face to face therapy in person.
It is true that getting help online fills a gap by offering people one more means of accessing professional support and is especially beneficial to people who live in remote areas or are unable to commute to a therapist’s office or clinic due to illness or disability. However, if this is seen as the only benefit of online counselling, it can lead to the misconception that there is a hierarchy within the therapy profession in which traditional, in-person counselling is regarded as the ideal and other forms of getting support are seen as second-best.
But online counselling offers certain advantages that can make it an attractive option not only for people who cannot see a therapist in person, but also for people who prefer not to. We live in a world where people are increasingly becoming used to getting what they want online – food, clothing, books or services such as banking and travel. Connecting with family and friends over the internet bridges long distances. The popularity of the counselling directory suggests that the internet is a popular medium for accessing information about support services. With the advent of the internet and technological advances, a world of knowledge and information is just a few clicks away.
The ease with which we can access something influences whether or not we access it. This is also true of support. Many people may be dissatisfied with aspects of themselves or their lives but don’t seek support because, for whatever reason, they don’t want to make a weekly trip to a counsellor’s office. Often the decision to seek therapy involves a reflective psychological journey, and in case of in-person therapy, a physical one as well. Online counselling makes counselling more accessible to people who are deterred by the fact of having to travel to and from a therapist's office. In addition, online counselling offers clients the chance to get professional support from the comfort of their home or office, and many clients may feel more comfortable sharing difficult experiences if they do so from an environment they are familiar with and in which they feel at ease.
Increased anonymity is also an advantage of online counselling. Seeking support in-person usually means clients have to limit their search for a counsellor by geographical location to try and find a counsellor in their neighbourhood or town. Clients may hesitate doing so because of fears that their confidentiality will be compromised if someone recognises them, or anxieties about running into their therapist outside of the counselling space. If clients hail from a small town or village that only has one or two qualified therapists, their options for getting support in- person may be quite limited. In all of these circumstances, online counselling affords clients greater choice and flexibility as they don't need to restrict themselves to a particular region and can talk to a counsellor they are much less likely to run into outside the sessions.
Online counselling can range from exchanging emails with a counsellor, live type chat or real time face to face video conferencing. Each offers different advantages and differs from in-person therapy in distinct ways. For example, emails or type-chat may lend an anonymity to the conversation that may make it easier for some clients to express themselves whereas video conferencing can offer clients an experience very similar to in-person therapy by allowing both the client and the therapist to draw upon facial expressions, posture or other non-verbal cues in addition to speech.
The crucial point is not whether online counselling is better or worse than in-person therapy. They are simply quite different from each other. Each has its pros and cons. Each presents very different challenges and considerations for therapists to bear in mind. Ultimately it is for each therapist to reflect on and determine which medium(s) of therapy they are comfortable offering and each individual client to decide on the medium that appeals to them. Online counselling makes a significant contribution towards increasing the choices available to prospective clients and must be seen as an adjunct to in-person therapy, rather than an inferior, second choice.
(*The words counselling and therapy have been used interchangeably in this article)
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