How effective is online therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The need for mental health support has been heightened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has moved many seeking help online. (Courtesy of Pexels)

With the high demand for great advances in healthcare technology and treatments provided via telehealth, access to counseling has become critical — leading many to wonder if they will reap the same benefits without being in person. 

York alumna and instructor Shari Geller recently conducted research, published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly, on how therapists can maintain a therapeutic presence while transitioning online. 

“Research suggests that training and comfort with the technology would increase the likelihood that therapists would use telehealth,” stated Geller to yFile.

Telehealth is becoming popular worldwide, and virtual health services will remain in good use and even escalate as a necessity post-COVID-19. Healthcare providers are working to ensure that these services can be suited to meet each individual accordingly, as this pandemic has prevented any form of physical contact and communication in person as a result of physical distancing measures. 

Marwa Sakhizada, a fourth-year health informatics student, shared some common misconceptions that people might have about online therapy. “People might assume that online therapy isn’t worth going to, especially because it’s not in person and you might think that you won’t have that same feel/experience as someone who goes to in person therapy.”

However, Sakhizada believes this is not the case. “Online therapy can be just as effective as in person, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic we could all use some advice and comfort these days.”

Geller emphasized the importance of being able to conduct therapy sessions online and build strong and effective therapeutic relationships with clients. She is working to provide therapists with training and is increasing research in cultivating online therapeutic presence. 

Geller offered her own tips to encourage and support both therapists and clients with the use of telepsychotherapy. She shared why she thinks online therapy, or telepsychotherapy, can be highly beneficial.

“There are many advantages to institutionalizing telepsychotherapy: It would allow access to a much broader community, such as those who live in rural communities or have physical, cognitive, or emotional limitations making it difficult to come to a therapist’s office,” explains Geller.

Dr. Rachel Liebman, assistant director at the York University Psychology Clinic, says online therapy has proven its efficacy throughout the pandemic. According to Dr. Liebman, the outbreak has changed the course of therapy for the individuals that are in need of it. “The research that is emerging shows that online therapy is as effective as in person for a range of mental health issues,” she says. 

“When combined with other benefits like increased access to people who live in remote areas and have limited in person services at their disposal, it is clear that online therapy has opened up a much-needed opportunity to enhance access to care without compromising quality.”

Dr. Louise Hartley, registered psychologist and director at the York University Psychology Clinic, exchanges her insights on what the transition to online therapy has been like. “Some clients prefer the virtual format because of the ease of access — no more struggle about the commute time or parking expenses. There are others who have only transitioned to telephone — I think because the virtual format creates some uncomfortableness about having a screenshot of themselves while trying to focus on their therapist.”

Dr. Liebman says that despite the move to online, not much has changed in terms of technique. She says the main difference is an increased number of people experiencing the stressors of the pandemic and more people reaching out.

“Most research shows that very little adaptation is needed for therapy in the online context — evidence-based therapies are able to proceed as prescribed in the manuals without need to adapt,” she says. 

“People are still doing behavioral exposures and other interventions that we previously thought could only be done in person. It’s been an exciting time for innovating techniques, but the techniques themselves haven’t changed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought many different complications, such as the challenge of improving mental health and maintaining a positive outlook. 

On the bright side, progressions in technology and research have cast a spotlight on the desire and need to expand services geared towards benefitting both patients and therapists, such as the use of teletherapy.

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By Sarah Taleghani

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Earl van As

Great article. I agree that digital therapy even if it’s not guided by a therapist can be enormously effective. Starling Minds is a great example of a highly effective cognitive behavior therapy solution for treating stress, anxiety and depression.

Sarah Taleghani

Thank you for the positive feedback! I am pleased to learn that Starling Minds provides such beneficial services as well.