Is Online Therapy Worth The Hype? 2 College Women Weigh In

Online therapy is really having its moment, between the COVID-19 pandemic causing nearly all services to go at least temporarily virtual and the general increase in popularity of digital wellness services in recent years, but is virtual therapy really worth the hype

recent study from the American Psychological Association found that 76% of mental health clinicians say they're now solely providing remote services. There's also a growing popularity around companies such as BetterHelp or Talkspace, sites that connect you with a virtual therapist for a set monthly subscription fee. These apps provide an additional platform for people across the country to connect with mental health providers and receive support around issues like anxietydisordered eating, or anything else you might be struggling with. Given the constant buzz around virtual therapy in the past few months, I decided to check in with women in their twenties who are therapy clients, as well as a licensed therapist, to get an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of online counseling.

overhead shot of a desk with someone writing in a notebook and on a video call on a computer Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

The convenience can't be beat

Right away, it’s easy to see that one of the biggest pros of virtual therapy is the convenience. Similar to the benefits of working from home that so many of us are now enjoying, online therapy allows you to no longer have to endure a commute, awkward waiting room, or even uncomfortable clothes (aka, anything other than sweatpants) in order to chat with a therapist. Additionally, if you previously had to work around a strict 9-to-5 work schedule to find an appointment time, you might now be able to squeeze in some time between Zoom calls or during a lunch break, without having to account for the time to travel to an office and back. 

In addition to the convenience, cost and accessibility are two super important factors when it comes to choosing a type of therapy. In some cases, it just makes more sense to go virtual when considering your individual situation. Many private therapists don’t accept insurance, which can make online-only therapy companies who do accept it much more appealing (or in some cases, the only realistic option).

Maddie*, a woman in her early twenties who uses BetterHelp, is all too familiar with the insurance struggle. “When I was looking to change therapists, I found it hard to find one in my area that my insurance covered," she says, which is how she came to look into virtual options. "It’s much cheaper than traditional therapy, and I used a discount code from a podcast for my first month! I think everyone could benefit from therapy, and this makes it accessible.”

For college students or recent grads that might be tight on both money and time, online-only therapy clearly has a lot to offer, and might be the next big step to making therapy more accessible to groups who previously couldn’t afford or find time to go. 

Similarly, even if cost isn’t a problem, virtual therapy improves accessibility by providing more options for people to talk to outside of your commuting radius, and might be a more comfortable option if you prefer to be in a familiar space while opening up.

Emily Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker who works as a therapist in private practice, often finds that to be the case. “Some people find it easier to open up when they can do virtual therapy from the comfort of their own homes,” she says, and with virtual sessions as an option, it gives clients a wider range of professionals to choose from. If you live in an area with a smaller selection of therapists to choose from, or think you’d feel more comfortable being able to open up about your life from the comfort of your own bed, virtual therapy could be a great choice. 

Virtual therapy can also provide you with more options for how you want to interact with your therapist. Companies such as BetterHelp and Talkspace offer face-to-face video chats like what you might expect from traditional therapy turned digital, but they also offer texting, live-chat, and phone options that give you a variety of ways to connect with your therapist based on your preferences.

Maddie loves the option to text with her therapist. "She gives me ‘homework’ each week of activities and journal prompts to work with, and I love that I can take action [immediately] after our sessions,” she says.

Notably, these different communication options come with different pricing tiers (for example, the least expensive plan through Talkspace includes text, video, and audio messaging, and it costs more to have live video sessions as part of your subscription). For those who prefer texting or talking on the phone to video chatting, these companies can provide flexibility that might not be as common in traditional therapy.

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But every option has its cons, too

Unfortunately, like many things that might sound too good to be true, there are some downsides to online-only therapy. For one, while some might find it easier to do therapy from the comfort of their own home, you may actually find it harder to feel comfortable opening up about difficult topics (which is a lot of what therapy is in the first place!) when you don’t have the face-to-face connection, especially if you’re meeting your therapist for the first time ever through a screen.

Sarah*, a therapy client in her mid-twenties who’s also in grad school for clinical mental health counseling, finds it to be easier to have difficult conversations when she's actually in the room with someone else. “Virtual therapy is hard for both parties because therapy is largely based on the therapeutic relationship," she says. "Sometimes not being in the same room can be awkward because it's hard to read body language.” 

If you’re someone who struggles to connect with friends or coworkers over video chat as compared to in-person, or you like to be able to read a person’s body language as a means of connecting, online therapy might not be the best choice for you.

Additionally, finding a private and quiet space to use for your virtual therapy session can be a significant challenge. I took it for granted when I went to in-person therapy sessions and found myself in a quiet, soothing, and private space with my therapist; finding a similar environment at home can be a lot harder, especially if you live with family or roommates. "It can be hard to find a space that feels private enough that your housemates or family won’t overhear your session...where you'll feel comfortable talking,” Cooper says. “You can help create this using headphones, white noise settings on Alexa/Google Home, or even a YouTube ‘white noise loop’ video that you set up outside your door.” But having to take so many steps to create your space can make the process feel daunting for some.

Similarly, video chatting requires a stable internet connection, which isn’t always easy. We’ve all been on the work Zoom call that ends up fuzzy or choppy due to internet issues, and therapy sessions are no different. “A slow WiFi connection and your therapist freezing on you every few minutes can make for a really frustrating session,” Cooper says. While you might think that doing therapy from your couch sounds like the ideal situation (and it still could be!) it's a good idea to plan ahead to help prevent these potential problems.

Woman with curly hair waving and saying hi to someone through her laptop. Photo by Yan from Pexels

The verdict? It's up to you

So, given the variety of both pros and cons of trying out therapy through a screen, how do you know if it’s right for you? Cooper sums it up in the simplest way: “Try it! Communicate your concerns and hesitations with your therapist." After all, they're there to help you! Ultimately, therapy is a service that you’re paying for, and so it makes sense that you have the right to advocate for yourself in terms of what is and isn’t working for you in a virtual session.

Ultimately, therapy is a tool used to better yourself and improve your personal wellness, and you’re the only one who can determine what that looks like. You might decide that virtual therapy is the best option for your needs, or that you prefer having an in-person connection, and both are totally fine! Your preferences around therapy are likely as unique as you, but armed with this knowledge you can plan to walk in (or sit down at your laptop!) with confidence.

*Names have been changed