The Downside of Free Online Counseling Chat Services

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT
February 6, 2020

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, 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.

online chat

Online counseling is a relatively new form of treatment whereby people “see” a therapist over the internet without leaving the comfort of their homes. These sessions are usually conducted via live chat, video conferencing, phone calls or private message boards. Among the vast range of internet resources you can also find open chat rooms, free mental health advice in the form of Q&A and self-help websites in abundance.

All these services are available at the touch of a button and all free to the user. The goal of these psychotherapy is to receive help individuals get help without leaving the comfort of their home.

Sometimes, people prefer to stay anonymous when it comes to issues regarding their mental health; a lot of times, people who suffer from abusive relationships are unable to get out of the house to get the help they need. Some people suffering with depression might also find it difficult to get up and get help. If you live in a rural area or do not have insurance/money, online counseling might also be the only and or closest way for you to access mental health services.

So, the idea of online therapy was developed to help remedy these circumstances. 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.

connect to an online therapist today

This is often their first interaction with the world of online therapy. Having access to information and assistance, right there and then, and being able to sit in your comfort zone and access help with a touch of a button or few clicks online is great.

These free services offer the benefit of instant support and connection. They also provide access to a wide range of resources and a community of support and concern which can certainly serve an important function in assisting people to manage challenging circumstances. 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 are certainly not claiming to nor are they able to offer the services and support that a qualified mental health professional can deliver.

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 counseling/psychological professional that can confirm or give advice. 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.

Other 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.

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. Free online counseling services mostly do not provide you with the best therapist that there is in the field. In fact, a lot of these services are 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

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.

Online Therapists are Limited

Not only do you not get direct access to a licensed and experienced mental health professional, they are also limited in how much they can help you. Online therapists are not able to respond to crisis situations. Since online therapists are distant from the client, it is difficult, or maybe nearly impossible to assist in urgent situations. If a client is experiencing suicidal thoughts or has suffered a personal tragedy, it can be difficult or even impossible for the therapist to provide direct assistance.

Online therapists are also limited when it comes to the amount of information that they are accessing. Online therapy can sometimes lack the important information that is needed by the therapist to help you efficiently. In many cases, therapists cannot see facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal communication, that are usually important to any communication.

These signals are often quite telling and can give a therapist the clearer picture of what is going on. When a therapist is able to read one’s body language in addition to verbal language, they are able to clearly picture your feelings, thoughts, moods, and behaviors. Chat rooms, forums, emailing, phone calls, do not necessarily provide these information. They also lack the intimacy and intricacy that real-world interaction poses. These are  important in the course of any mental health therapy.

Putting complex emotions into written words can also be a challenge for a lot of people. It is often easier to chat with someone sitting across from you than having to type it out, though some (paid) online therapy platforms do offer video sessions. If you struggle with putting your feelings and emotions into words, it may be easier with in-person therapy for the professional to help guide you through improving your ability to express your emotions.

For some, communication is also stunted in online therapy in that when they are unable to see who they are talking to, they are far less likely to disclose personal information. One could also misinterpret messages through texts/chats, as they do not carry any emotions. The lack of a physical presence of another person in the same room may make some people feel less emotionally intimate and less comforted in times of distress.

Online Therapy is Not Appropriate For Those With Serious Mental Illness

Although, online therapy can be useful for many individuals and variety of situations, but not when it comes to serious psychiatric illnesses that require close and direct treatment. There is only so much a person on the phone can offer to someone who is having a serious mental breakdown. Online psychotherapy services might be inappropriate for individuals with chronic mental illnesses like chronic schizophrenia, chronic bipolar disorders, chronic substance abuse, and maybe even chronic depression.

These conditions may require the type of therapy than can only come from in-person sessions with a licensed mental health therapist or psychiatrist. A person experiencing thoughts of harming himself/herself or another person, will need more attention than can be given within a chat forum or through emailing psychotherapy services.

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 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 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.

Confidentiality and Privacy Concerns

These also accompanies the matter of professionalism. Keeping your personal information private is a major concern when it comes to psychotherapy, but online therapy services adds a layer of complexity. Unless the online therapy is 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.

Technology Failure.

Unlike face-to-face appointments, technological failure can occur in online therapy. One’s phone or computer could go down, there could be an interruption of internet service from either you or your provider, anything can happen. Whereas, with traditional mental health services, these are not likely to affect your therapy session. When a meeting is done face-to-face, everyone knows when, where, and for how long the appointment will take place. If for any case the session needs to be cancelled, it is well communicated between the therapist and the client.

No Medications Via Online Therapy

Medications cannot be prescribed after an online session has ended. Especially within peer-mediated groups, drugs that can help treat mental illnesses such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety, antipsychotic, or mood stabilizing drugs cannot be prescribed. This is also because a lot of times, you are not speaking to a licensed psychiatrist, but a paraprofessional or another average person.

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 the most affordable option for you, 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. Your mental health is on the line; don’t push it off any longer.

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.