The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the mental health of the global population. Even though the full-fledged effects of the pandemic in general and measures like quarantine, in particular, on our mental health have not been documented or studied in great detail, the implications are well-known and, frankly, disturbing. It is essential to discuss the feelings of emotional distress resulting from the transition to this isolating lifestyle. Inevitably, this has led to an ever-increasing number of people seeking help from mental health professionals. But as the pandemic rages on and lockdowns and quarantine restrictions continue to make in-person therapy not only challenging but also potentially dangerous, Cyber Therapy is on its way to becoming an invaluable resource.
Cyber therapy, also known as teletherapy or e-therapy, involves providing mental health care and services over the internet. It includes emails, video chats, messaging, or phone calls, with video calling being the most effective method (if a high-quality connection is possible). While this form of therapy has immense benefits, it does not come without its risks and perils, as most practitioners were made to shift to the virtual model to provide mental health care almost overnight.
It is provided by therapists who have received the same education and undergone the same training as therapists providing in-person therapy. Most online therapists providing treatment during the pandemic were former in-person providers. Thus, essentially there is no difference between the credentials of a conventional and an online therapist, only the method of communication differs. The client’s preference and the therapist’s technological capabilities decide the method used throughout the treatment, ranging from texts and phone calls, which make non-verbal cues and body language hard to interpret for therapists, to video chats that solve many of these problems.
Online Therapy Programs and Counselling services have various programs and customizable packages that can connect those seeking help and interventions with licensed and verified professionals through chats and in-built video counseling portals while also offering flexible schedules. There are specialized services for teenagers that provide counseling services for teens grappling with anxiety, depression, and high-stress levels. However, whether clients choose their therapist or counselor depends on the package and the program they select.
Cyber therapy also reduces the overhead costs for therapists, and they can provide more accessible and affordable treatment plans. Much of the stigma attached to therapy and other physical barriers are also eliminated as it can be accessed privately. Clients do not have to travel long distances if they are located in remote areas. Even minors dependent on guardians for transportation can benefit from it all while being in complete control of their privacy. Email and text-based support are essential for trans and queer people who find themselves trapped in unsupportive households, where their privacy is violated, and they do not have physical access to safe community spaces. Many platforms also offer crisis helplines that provide help and counseling during emergencies.
It has been proven that cyber-therapy is efficacious. Many conditions like Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, and Obsessive-Compulsive disorder can be treated effectively through online counseling. A 2018 study titled ‘Computer therapy for anxiety and depression disorders is effective, acceptable and practical health care: An updated meta-analysis’ found that online CBT and face-to-face therapy are equally effective and offer high satisfaction and moderate adherence for Depression and Anxiety disorders. It has also been found that clients find it easier to open up during online therapy as they are in the comfort of their homes.
However, people experiencing severe distress due to serious disorders and illnesses, including Schizophrenia and Substance Addiction, may need more interventions than are possible through internet-based therapy and should not rely on it solely. Other subtle but important body language cues such as the restless legs or clasping hands tightly due to uneasiness are also lost in texts, emails, and the limited frame of a video calling platform.
Needless to say, internet-based therapy is not immune to the risks of security and privacy breaches. The professionals involved must have an adequate understanding of the software and applications they are using and should be especially aware of malware which puts the private medical data of clients at risk of exposure without their consent. Counseling can also bring about overwhelming emotions in clients. However, it is difficult to respond quickly and effectively to those at high risk of self-harm and suicide during online counseling as online counselors are distant from the client. Thus, risk assessments should be carried out, and a safety plan must be made and discussed with the client in advance. The counselor should note the client’s emergency contacts and be informed about the steps to be undertaken if there are concerns that the client presents a risk to others or themselves.
Finally, clients must always ensure that the professionals are licensed and that their privacy and confidentiality are guaranteed. Cyberspace is filled with unqualified individuals offering generalized and vague advice in the guise of ‘therapy’ and ‘self-care.’ They use ambiguous labels like ‘life coach’ or ‘healer and active listeners’ and even charge individuals. Anonymous online platforms are also responsible for the exploitation and breach of confidentiality of the clients. Be careful of quack therapists who are underqualified or do not have the qualifications required to practice a specific form of therapy (the terms ‘therapist’ and ‘psychotherapist’ are not legally protected and can be used by anyone regardless of their qualifications). Quack therapy does more harm than good as misguidance can trigger the severity of clinical disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders.
Cyber Therapy is a beacon of hope amidst the raging pandemic. COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the discipline of psychology and has fundamentally changed the notion of providing mental health care virtually, especially since it has a strong emotional dimension. Anyone seeking assistance can receive it at their convenience from professionals residing all around the world. Even if you do not have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder or illness, online therapy can be a way to get started. You could benefit from emotional support and find peace and fulfillment as you go through the strenuous phase of living through a pandemic. As the world feels increasingly isolated and the going gets tough, remember that you are not alone, and the doors of therapy are always open!
- Feijt, M., de Kort, Y., Bongers, I., Bierbooms, J., Westerink, J., & IJsselsteijn, W. (2020). Mental Health Care Goes Online: Practitioners’ Experiences of Providing Mental Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(12), 860–864. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0370
- Riva G, Botella C, Castelnuovo G, Gaggioli A, Mantovani F, Molinari E. Cybertherapy in practice: the VEPSY updated project. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2004; 99:3-14.
- Situmorang, D. D. (2020). Online/Cyber counselling Services in the COVID-19 Outbreak: Are They Really New? Journal of Pastoral Care & counselling: Advancing Theory and Professional Practice through Scholarly and Reflective Publications, 74(3), 166–174. https://doi.org/10.1177/1542305020948170