Free online therapy seems to be a popular option, considering all the accessible sites for it. The option is available in many countries and languages. Avoiding traffic, public exposure in waiting rooms and time-consuming commutes can make online therapy appealing. So can the convenience of digital devices. But how does free online therapy help people, and is it doing so? And how does it compare to online therapy from clinical therapists, i.e., trained mental health professionals?
Online therapy shares a feature with on-site therapy: Two-way discussions. Talk therapy, in which a client and therapist discuss distressing matters, is a classic of the mental health industry. It tends to rely on feedback. The therapist’s responses to the client’s comments can point out inconsistent thinking and behavior. That can be quite a startling revelation for some clients and the beginning of productive changes in their thinking and behavior. Therapists help that process along with a sharing of ideas and resources. Compassionate but untrained “listeners” are not as likely to have such experiences, though. Nor are the “listeners” likely to be aware of necessary mental health and related resources. If a client simply wants a friendly chat with someone whom they do not know, then amateurs are what they want.
There’s another important phenomenon that trained therapists can spot for a troubled client: Generalizations. Generalization is a term that describes the phenomenon of the fear or dread of one specific incident or item being applied to similar incidents and items. Once a client comprehends that they are indiscriminately applying inappropriate characteristics to undeserving victims and in inappropriate ways, they can progress to appreciating the incidents and items in benign ways. “Listeners” aren’t likely to provide that sort of therapeutic input.
Therapists can share other clarifying ideas to help people progress with their lives. That’s why the mental health industry thrives; It explores issues and separates them into understandable parts. The overall goal is to help clients to bring the parts together to form a productive whole and a productive mindset. Specialized training is required to let that happen.
Talk therapy, which is offered through services like BetterHelp, also allows clients to hear their mistakes and misguided thought processes by allowing them the opportunity to think aloud. Out loud thinking is a very different experience from thinking quietly. Insightful therapists trained to identify thinking and behavior patterns are also trained to provide impartial ideas and options to their clients. That is the heart and soul of the therapeutic experience: Directing the client into more satisfying, productive behaviors. An important dividing line between competent therapists and incompetent colleagues or online “listeners” is that therapists don’t tell someone what to do. Mental health practice is predicated on letting clients make their own choices and on taking responsibility for those choices. Clients learn to “own” their actions. “Listeners” might simply give advice or criticize the people speaking with them.
Clinical psychology, one aspect of psychotherapy, focuses on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Sympathetic and empathetic “listeners” on the other hand, aren’t necessarily trained to do that. If the client is suicidal, violent, involved in some other sort of immediate crisis, suffering from learning disabilities, substance abuse, shyness, the inability to use public restrooms, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or other serious concerns, they are in serious need of appropriate therapeutic responses to their comments, situations and behaviors. Those therapeutic responses would concentrate on preventing problematic outcomes and guiding the client to helpful choices and resolutions for their problems.
Evidence exists that online psychotherapy indeed helps people. It is not clear, though, that temporary “listeners” without therapeutic credentials improve the lives of their conversational companions. Stressed out clients might find pleasantly behaved “listeners” to be a welcome feedback to their relief-seeking efforts. On the other hand, they might benefit from comparing the pros and cons of unprofessional responses to confidential, stress-induced remarks to the pros and cons of skilled, expert feedback to such highly charged statements.
Weighing the merits of professional aka clinical therapeutic input versus talking to someone posing as a temporary confidante could be a wise move. A potential client can list the pluses and minuses of each option. If paying for professional therapy is not realistic, you might find it worth accessing a certified therapist at no charge via online sites. Entrusting important issues to untrained, though sympathetic, people can prove to be a risk not worth taking.
Yocheved Golani is a popular writer whose byline has appeared worldwide in print and online. A certified Health Information Management professional, she is a member of Get Help Israel. Certified in Spiritual Chaplaincy (End of Life issues) and in counseling skills, her life coaching for ill people puts healthy perspective into a clients’ success plan for achieving desired goals.