By Elaine Cassel
Communicate with friends, purchase books and CDs, read, conduct research, pay bills, order food and movie tickets. How many of these activities do you engage in online? If you are a cyber junkie, maybe Internet therapy is for you.
It might not be a bad idea for some people. Sites like MyTherapyNetwork.com and HelpHorizons.com ask would-be clients to answer a questionnaire about the nature of their problem, identify the state they live in, and provide a credit card number before receiving the names and phone numbers of therapists who are immediately available for phone sessions. MyTherapyNetwork has more than 500 registered therapists and HelpHorizons more than 600. Both sites expect their therapist pool to increase significantly this year. The service is not cheap. At $3.95 per minute for MyTherapyNetwork, that comes to $197.50 for a 50-minute "hour." For now, though, the first fifteen minutes are free.
Though some critics disclaim the notion, supporters say that this option might be an advantage for people who live in rural areas with few treatment providers, are housebound as a result of a disability or lack of transportation, or are leery of meeting face-to-face with a therapist and would like to try a less personal approach.
Both sites link clients only with therapists who are licensed in the state of the client's residence (to avoid running afoul of state practice laws) and have professional liability insurance. Clients can choose from psychiatrists, Ph.D. psychologists, licensed clinical social workers and counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Operators of these two sites point out that many people who call are not seriously mentally ill, but need someone to talk to. For these people, online therapy is arguably better than no therapy at all.
The Surgeon General recently reported that one in five people suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder and less than one-third of those actually receive treatment. Perhaps this method will be a way of getting some of the untreated the help that they need, especially since mental health concerns are among the top four health issues for which people seek online information.
But just as people aren't doing most of their purchasing, reading, and communicating online, online mental health treatment is not going to replace traditional psychotherapy. Potential clients should (1) check the credentials and insurance status of the therapists by contacting their state's licensing boards and (2) keep an eye on the clock. Insurers are not yet offering reimbursement for cybertherapy.
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