According to NAMI, there are roughly 43.8 million people in the United States that live with a mental health issue. While this is an ever-increasing concern, the good news is that we have done a decent job in fighting many taboos and stigmas that were present for generations. Today, we have various athletes talking about their bouts with depression or other mental health problems. Movie stars have opened up. Politicians as well. There are even websites such as The Mighty where ‘ordinary’ citizens can write about their daily struggles with mental health.
Although there is still more work that needs to be done in order to eliminate stigmas altogether, it is clear that we have created a strong foundation from where to build upon. This has ultimately led to many people who would not have sought out professional help to finally try and see if they could get the support they needed. That’s why as of today, there are more people than ever who are looking for mental health counseling.
A New Form of Help
In addition to this decline in stigmatization, technology has really propelled the rise in therapy sessions across the country. Online counseling is a relatively new form of treatment whereby people “see” a therapist over the internet (chat-based therapy, phone calls, video conferencing, etc.). However, while the growth has been astronomical, this has been fueled largely by free online counseling services. Paid online counseling services may be a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy but many people still avoid it, either because it’s still considered too expensive or because people would simply like to try it first before committing to it. Thus, you have many people flocking to free services first. This is often their first interaction with the world of online therapy.
What Exactly is “Free”?
Can anything seem more tempting than a “free online counseling chat 24/7” notice at some website or in a print ad, especially when you’re stressed to the max? When you’re on a strict budget and dealing with a mental health problem, you could interpret that as your savior. However, there are several things to consider when it comes to a “free” service:
- A free online counseling chat is exactly what it implies: an experiment in meeting your needs.
- 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.
- You may be charged money after a certain time frame.
- You risk exposing yourself to other people and may experience discomfort that can cause temporary or lifelong harm. Not only can the problems that you’ve raised go unresolved, they might get worse.
Online chat rooms are not necessarily the stuff of guaranteed confidentiality or benefit. Participants are free to gossip about you online and off, and many will provide you with unhelpful advice. If you decide to go this route, you should verify privacy protections and who you’ll be chatting with before you begin interacting with free online counseling chat rooms. Many do offer total anonymity, but you’ll likely be speaking with “average Joes” – not licensed psychologists.
Privacy & Professionalism Matters
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 won’t appreciate being spoken of behind their back(s), or if you speak with someone who can’t be trusted with confidential information, you dread the gossip that might follow your remarks. So, you seek privacy while sorting out troubling issues. You’re motivated to solve the problem(s) 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.
When a problem is particularly delicate, conventional wisdom would caution against the use of free online counseling chat rooms. That old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is a warning. It’s an alert for being careful to avoid the futility of interacting with someone who lacks the credentials that warrant payment for their professionalism.
Here are the pitfalls that anyone needs to avoid in a counseling service that lacks the professionalism of trained, certified and competent therapists:
- Being abandoned by a free chat counselor or group (fees tend to motivate the client and the therapist to complete their respective efforts).
- Being harmed by inappropriate advice.
- Feeling worse than you did before.
- Losing sight of the reason that prompted you to seek counseling in the first place (e.g. you might become mired in unrelated issues raised within chat groups).
- No track record. Professional therapists know how to keep track of a specific client’s concerns. A causal arrangement within a chat counseling service or group might not invest in such efforts. Lost memories can impede progress with the counseling effort.
- Professionalism over amateurism. It matters. Trained, certified therapists offer specific benefits that amateurs can’t. Professional therapists are educated to understand the frailties of human minds and lives, they can identify problematic patterns of behavior, and they are skilled in rehabilitating them. They’re also good at locating plus sharing information that troubled clients need for improving the quality of their lives.
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 psychological life. There’s simply too much on the line to consider this a realistic option if you are dealing with a serious mental health issue. While paid online therapy may be expensive for you, keep in mind that it’s still far cheaper than in-office therapy, and is something you should seek out if you think you need it, even if the financial burden is a bit high. Your mental health is on the line; don’t push it off any longer. For your convenience, we’ve created a detailed chart to learn more about the best online therapy services and their associated costs and reviews.
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.