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26th March, 20216 min read

What is online therapy and how does it work?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Rosa Bowden
Last reviewed: 26/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

If you’re looking for help with your mental health, online therapy might be a suitable option. It's grown in popularity in recent years, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more mental-health services are available over the internet.

But what exactly is online therapy and how does it work? Keep reading to find out.

What is online therapy?

‘Talking therapy’ is a type of mental health therapy where you talk to a trained professional about your thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Online therapy is when a therapy session happens over the internet. It’s sometimes called e-therapy, e-counselling, teletherapy or cyber-counselling.

Sessions can happen in ‘real time’ or over a delayed period of time, using:

  • video calls
  • phone calls
  • text or instant chat messages
  • emails
  • apps on your phone

Online therapy can be used to treat a range of mental health conditions, including:

What kind of therapy is available online?

As with in-person therapy, there are different types of online therapy. Common forms of online therapy include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that there's a connection between your thoughts and feelings and physical sensations and actions. Online CBT – sometimes called computerised CBT (CCBT) or internet-delivered CBT (iCBT) – is a course you do on your phone, computer or tablet. Courses last for several weeks or months and can be as effective as in-person therapy
  • counselling can take place over the phone, on a video call, by email or through live chat. It involves talking to a professional therapist who can help you figure out your feelings and find your own solutions to your problems

CBT can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety and low mood, panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and some eating disorders.

Counselling can be used to help with conditions such as depression and anxiety. It can also help you work through challenging life events, difficult emotions and things you might be worried about, such as a physical condition or your sexuality.

What are the benefits of online therapy?

The main benefit of online therapy is that you can do it anywhere, as long as you’re connected to the internet. This can be particularly useful if you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person, or you’d prefer not to leave your home or use public transport.

Online therapy can also be a good option if you live in a rural area, where there may be limited access to mental health services.

How can you find an online therapist?

Doing some research will help you find the best online therapy service for you.

There are many different words used to describe mental health practitioners, including therapist, counsellor, wellbeing practitioner, psychotherapist, psychologist and psychiatrist. These titles indicate the type of training a therapist has completed.

When you’re looking for an online therapist, it’s important to find someone you can trust and feel comfortable talking to. You should find out what kind of therapy a potential therapist offers and whether they have any special qualifications that fit your needs – such as experience working with LGBTQ+ people or abuse survivors, for example.

You should also look at the therapist’s website to check that they’re qualified – and particularly if they have online experience – and what professional bodies they belong to. And if you’re using an online therapy platform such as an app or website, make sure it only uses professional therapists.

What to expect from an online therapy appointment

Before your online therapy appointment, it’s important to find a private, quiet space where you won’t be overheard or interrupted. This should be a safe space where you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings.

If your appointment is a video call, it should take place over a secure, web-encrypted platform. Before you start, it's a good idea to check the microphone and camera on your laptop, computer, phone or tablet.

At your first appointment, your therapist will probably explain how the course will work and do an assessment. You might discuss:

  • the type of therapy offered
  • how long the therapy will last and what it will be like
  • what you want to get out of therapy
  • the therapist’s confidentiality policy
  • any worries you might have about therapy
  • any costs involved and what happens if you need to cancel

How the rest of your sessions work will depend on the type of therapy you’re having. They can involve specific exercises and more general discussions about your thoughts, feelings and experiences.

If you’re doing an iCBT course, you may be given a list of sessions to work through online in your own time. These will give you tools to help you understand what makes you feel a certain way and things you can do to feel better. iCBT courses typically run for 6 to 8 weeks, but you may still be able to access the sessions after you’ve finished the course.

How much does online therapy cost and are there free online therapy services?

The cost of private online therapy varies, depending on the type of therapy and who’s offering it.

A growing number of websites and apps offer cheap online therapy at a range of prices. Some also offer a free trial period, so you can see if it’s right for you.

You may be able to access free online therapy through your:

  • national or local health service
  • employer
  • university or college
  • health insurance provider

It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor, employer or advisor about what options are available.

There are also some websites that offer free online therapy chat services, where you can talk to trained volunteers. However, you should bear in mind that these volunteers offer non-therapeutic advice – they’re not qualified therapists.

When to see a doctor

It’s important to remember that online therapy won’t work for everyone. And there are some mental health conditions that need more treatment than online therapy can provide.

If you’re experiencing poor mental health, it’s best to speak to your doctor, so they can help you access treatment that’s suitable for you.

Key points

  • online therapy is mental health therapy that happens over the internet
  • it can take place via video calls, phone calls, text, instant messages, emails and apps
  • do some research to find a qualified online therapist and a reputable service
  • use a private and safe space for your online therapy session
  • it’s always best to speak to your doctor for advice about what therapy or treatment might be suitable for you
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