Online counseling refers to providing clients professional mental health services via different internet facilities. Due to its effectiveness and time and cost effectiveness, it has increased over the past few years. People may contact online counselors or counseling organizations and request online counseling. Online counseling is provided to different age groups including children, adults and old age people. The increasing speed of internet has contributed to an increase in online counseling. In the past, online counseling was primarily provided over emails as the speeds of internet was not good enough to provide face to face interaction with the therapist, but now, video conferencing and chats have become the primary sources of online counseling (Kraus, Stricke & Speyer, 2010). Having said that, online counseling may be provided by a mix of different online technologies and not just one.
In this paper, I have first shed some light on the impact of technology on online counseling from different angles. Then I have discussed the pros and cons of online technology, primarily from the point of view of the role of technology in online counseling. I have also discussed some challenges confronted in this field. Towards the end, I have discussed the ethical concerns that remain in online counseling and how they might be resolved.
Impact of technology in online counseling
Technology has impacted online counseling in many ways. It has helped clients reach out to therapist easily and with little costs than being able to physically reach out. It has also helped therapists get more clients and utilize their time effectively without the need of a physical interaction. In other words, it has virtualized counseling. It has also helped in adopting many ways in to train professionals in the field of counseling. For example, in the past, you would have to travel to a university or college if you lived far away and get the necessary counseling training. But now, you can get the same training through online courses.
Different technologies used in online counseling
Primarily, there are three modes of online counseling, chat therapies, video conferences and email therapies. Clients may be communicate with their therapists via emails to seek mental health help. This is an asynchronous process which does not have specific timings for counseling sessions.
Chat therapy is also a form of online counseling in which the clients chat with the therapists in the real time and discussion their issues. Different chat software like Skype, MSN messenger, Yahoo messenger or WhatsApp may be used for this purpose.
Video conferencing like Skype video conferences is also an effective way for a real time interaction with the therapist. These sessions are conducted on the scheduled time and may vary in their time consumption.
One of the benefit of email counseling is that it is a form of asynchronous text-based communication which allows both the client and the therapist to edit their responses before they can send it (Childress, 2000). This facility is not present in the face to face environment where both the clients and therapists have to be extremely cautious about what they say.
Online therapy is also a good option for remote areas where professional counsellors may not be available in person. This would make online counseling affordable and convenient for people living in remote areas. Due to internet, it has become easy to educate people from all areas where internet is available about mental health and different strategies to improve it.
There are many disadvantages online therapy and counseling. The first drawback is that it may not be covered by insurance companies and the people with mental health issues may have to arrange their own financial resources to get online mental health help.
Another disadvantage is that online counsellors may not be able to respond to crisis situations. They are at a certain distance and only present at their designated times.
Online therapy is also not a good option for people with severe mental health problems like neuropsychological mental health issues.
Challenges of online counseling
One of the major challenge in online counseling is the assessment of the attitudes of the client (Young, 2005). Online counseling is a virtual interaction. It is really hard to understand the attitude of the clients towards the ongoing counseling sessions. The therapist has to rely on his own understanding and may be lucky guesses. In therapy, to decide the forward direction, it is utmost important to understand the attitude of the clients which is primarily possible with the client being present physically in front of the therapist.
Another challenge is the effective use of technology by both the client and the therapist. If any one of them is not good at the use of technology or does not have access to effective technology, the counseling process may be negatively affected. For example, if either does not have a latest and fast enough computer or a broadband internet, it would may be difficult to have a fluent and quality video conference.
Ethical concerns in online counseling
The first and foremost ethical concern that exist in online counseling is the competency of the therapists in the online world (Mallen, Vogel & Rochlen, 2005). No one is sure if the person on the therapeutic end of the counseling process is competent enough and fit for the job. It even may not be clear if that is a real professional online counsellor. To prevent this from happening, we need strict cyber laws that prevent deception.
There is currently limited scientific evidence that could be used to assess the reliability and validity of online counseling (Midkiff & Joseph Wyatt, 2008). Without scientific foundations, we may not be able to give online counseling a clean chit. There is a need for more research into the field to give it a proper scientific foundation.
Confidentiality of the client’s personal information and their mental health records is another concern in the online counseling. There is a need to be more ethical in this regard and educated the clients properly about what their rights are and how the data related to them would be used.
There are many advantages, disadvantages and challenges when it comes to online counseling. The overall advantages overcome the drawbacks and the challenges in my opinion. I think that it is a great means of helping the mental health patients. With time, when the technology would further develop and people would have access to more effective and easy to use technologies, online counseling would become more fruitful and its use would increase. Therapist can devise strategies like offering training sessions at the start of the therapy regarding the use of technology to their clients so that both can take the most out of the therapeutic sessions. The future of online counseling is bright. Educational institutions need to play their role and offer courses that would help counselors to learn and improve online counseling.
Childress, C. A. (2000). Ethical issues in providing online psychotherapeutic interventions. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2(1).
Kraus, R., Stricker, G., & Speyer, C. (Eds.). (2010). Online counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals. Academic Press.
Mallen, M. J., Vogel, D. L., & Rochlen, A. B. (2005). The practical aspects of online counseling: Ethics, training, technology, and competency. The Counseling Psychologist, 33(6), 776- 818.
Midkiff, D. M., & Joseph Wyatt, W. (2008). Ethical issues in the provision of online mental health services (etherapy). Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26(2-4), 310-332.
Young, K. S. (2005). An empirical examination of client attitudes towards online counseling. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(2), 172-177.