The Downside of Free Online Counseling Chat Services

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT
Updated on June 6, 2021

The concept of free psychological services is not new. We only need to look at services such as AA, court ordered psychiatrist visits, and crisis intervention programs to find examples of free or mostly free psychological services. Technology has propelled the rise of online therapy chat providers, not only in America, but across the world. People living in rural areas or in other distant locations now have psychotherapy available to them with one click of a button.

free therapy chat service

While some companies offering online therapy are full-fledged, industry recognized therapy providers, there are services and apps offering free alternatives. These free services offer the benefits of instant support and connection. They also provide access to a wide range of resources and community support which can certainly also be valuable. However the individuals providing these services are either offering support as peers with a common experience or are offering a non-judgmental listening ear. They unable to offer the services and support that a qualified mental health professional can deliver, despite often describing themselves as a form of “free online counseling.”

Types of Free Online Counseling

The free counseling providers you will most likely encounter online usually fall in one of three categories. Although there are nonprofits and government subsidized programs, they are primarily in-person treatments, and not what one would normally categorize as fully online solutions.

Chat Rooms

Mostly peer-supported, this option caters to those seeking help from others that have experienced similar mental health issues. These chat rooms do not always include a mental health professional on staff that can confirm the advice provided or moderate the discussions. Since these rooms are open 24/7, some organizers (sometimes knowledgeable professionals) might enter the chat for few hours, which can be very helpful at times, but these “drop-ins” are limited and not always consistent.

Q/A Forums

Question and answer forums provide individuals with opportunities to post their own mental health questions as well as answer those of their peers. Some services allows you to directly submit questions to a professional (sometimes through email services) on various mental health issues. Most question and answer forums are open to anyone who signs up, so the responses can range from incredibly helpful to downright harmful and everything in between.

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Free With Limited Features

Some sites offer an option of supportive “listening” based counseling services using volunteers trained in active listening (e.g. 7 Cups of Tea, iPrevail). These free services serve the purpose of creating an online community which also then feeds into the option of paid professional services. They generally offer free peer counseling and community chat forums as well as paid online counseling with licensed professionals.

Therefore, they follow the model of many service providers on the internet, offering a free basic service and a premium service which requires payment. They also have the aim of creating caring, compassionate and inclusive communities of listeners and participants. Such services are at least in part influenced by an Internet culture of inclusivity, transparency and accessibility of information. However they also are very explicit in stating that their service is not suitable for people in crisis and generally refer such individuals to phone helplines or emergency services.

A Closer Look at Free Online Counseling Options

The concept of free online therapy services sounds pretty great, right? Can anything be more tempting than a “free online counseling chat” advertisement when you’re on a strict budget and dealing with a mental health problem. However, there are several things to consider when it comes to “free” services; there is always a price to pay when something of significant value is being offered at no cost. Here are some downsides to free online counseling.

You Get “Free” Services

A free online counseling chat is exactly what it implies; an experiment in meeting your needs. Many times, you are basically getting what you are paying for, which is – nothing. They mostly do not provide you with the best therapists in the field. In fact, a lot of these services are exclusively peer-mediated.

Sometimes, you are able to send direct questions to a mental health professional, but these services mostly provide you with access to trained paraprofessionals. Your counselor might not be particularly good at helping people with a problem and most likely is not even a licensed therapist at all. You could end up speaking with someone who simply earns money by interacting with random people.

Premium Services Do Cost Money

Your “free” service may actually be a platform offering free signup but requiring payment for a premium membership in order to receive access to a licensed professional on an ongoing basis. As you may imagine, most licensed mental health professionals need to make a living, so receiving online professional therapy for free is not something you should realistically expect, especially on an ongoing basis. After a certain time frame, or “free trial period,” you may be charged money. This can result in a cessation of therapy if you are not willing to pay.

The Therapists Are Limited on Time

Those offering free therapy online, whether they are professionals, people that have received certificates from quick training programs, or just good Samaritans, are limited with the amount of time an attention they can provide you. They usually have some other occupation and are engaging in these platforms as a hobby. So it is not uncommon for them to drop off from conversations for days and weeks at a time. They are also not bound to respond to you within a set amount of time as is the case with paid therapy platforms.

Privacy, Ethics and Professionalism Concerns

The basic reason that anyone wants to talk out a problem with another person is to gain 1 – emotional comfort and then 2 – the insight into how to solve a problem. Conventional wisdom guides us into speaking with people we know and trust, but sometimes we need to speak with a stranger, someone neutral with nothing to gain or lose by hearing what we want to say.

Sometimes a problem involves the people in our lives and their relationships with us. You know that they wouldn’t appreciate being spoken about behind their backs or having confidential information about them disclosed with an unpaid, random stranger online.

So, you need privacy while sorting out troubling issues. You’re motivated to solve the problems fast, and with someone wiser than you. That’s why solution-seeking people are willing to pay therapists: You hire their problem-solving expertise, their competence and their professionalism.

With free online psychotherapy chat services, you do not know what or who you will get. Group and Q/A forums usually contain people just like you, who are searching for answers to their own mental health problems. Although, this can be helpful in sharing what you are going through and being able to relate your mental health concerns with others, the risk is getting tips that are more harmful than helpful.

When a problem is particularly delicate, conventional wisdom would caution against the use of free chat rooms. That old saying, “You get what you pay for,” certainly comes to mind. It’s an alert for being careful to avoid the risks of interacting with someone who lacks the credentials that warrant payment for their professionalism.

Confidentiality Concerns

Keeping your personal information private is a major concern when it comes to psychotherapy, but teletherapy adds a layer of complexity. Unless the sessions are encrypted, there is a danger that private information can quickly become public.

Since a lot of your information is being transmitted online or via texts, information leaks and hacks is a big issue. Especially in forums including big groups of people (peer-mediated forums) you do not know who is behind the screen. This also brings about the concern of identity fraud. Without encryption, there is no way anyone can guarantee privacy. It is extremely unpleasant to think of very personal information becoming public information that is available to everyone, including strangers, friends, relatives and employers.

The Risks

Here are the pitfalls that anyone needs to avoid in a free counseling service that lacks the professionalism of trained, certified and competent therapists:

  • Being abandoned (or ghosted) by your counselor
  • Being harmed by inappropriate advice
  • Feeling worse than you did before
  • Having your information leaked due to unsecured communication

The Bottom Line

Free online counseling can be an excellent option for someone who is simply feeling down “at the moment.” Outside of that? You should consider staying away from free services.

There are many pitfalls in trusting amateurs rather than professionals with your mental health. There’s simply too much on the line to consider this a realistic option if you are dealing with a serious psychological issue. While free online therapy may be your only option, keep in mind you might run into more harm than good if you are experiencing serious mental health conditions that needs close observation.

You also have the options of paid online services. If you are convinced that online therapy is for you, you can find some paid services where you are guaranteed a licensed mental health professional to handle your case. When it comes to your mental health, prioritize your budgets as best you can.

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT

Adebolanle Ade is a Mental Health Social Worker and Registered Behavioral Technician. She has many years of experience writing and advocating for mental health awareness.