The concept of free supportive therapeutic services is not new. We need only look to organizations such as AA, crisis intervention and call-in centers to see the concept of people looking to volunteer networks of their peers and professionals for support and guidance. Does this concept translate online? Do we find services that offer free online counselling and what form do these services take?
So yes indeed the notion of free mental health services online does exist and the variety of modes of delivery mirrors the versatility of the internet. Amongst a vast range of internet resources you can find chat rooms, free mental health advice in the form of question posing and answers (e.g. Ask the Psych) and self-help resources in abundance. All these services are available at the touch of a button and all free to the user.
When you start to get into the space of counselling specifically, the free options are somewhat less extensive. The likelihood of a qualified professional who has invested years in training offering free services is low. Many online counselling services do however offer a promotional or introductory free trial session, series of chats or access to services for a specific time period, and thereafter require a fee if the client wishes to continue.
There are however a number of services offering free “counseling” in the form of peer group support. For instance Sane forums are an Australian based support forum for people affected by mental illness that provide a supportive forum for each other based on their shared experiences (Sane Forums). These kinds of forums are very explicit in stating that they are not offering counselling or crisis intervention. They merely serve as a space for people sharing common challenges to find support and understanding.
Other sites offer an option of supportive “listening” based counselling services using volunteers trained in active listening (e.g. 7 Cups of Tea, iPrevail). These free services serve the purpose of creating an on- line community which also then feeds into the option of paid professional services. They generally offer free peer counseling and community chat forums and paid online counselling with professionals. Hence 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 those who are listened to. Such services are at least in part influenced by the Internet culture of inclusivity, transparency, free flow of information, right and accessibility of information and services to all people any place any time. However they also are very explicit in stating that their service is not suitable for people in crisis and generally refer such individuals to telephonic helplines or emergency services.
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. If going the route of free counseling recognize the limitations of these kinds of services. Ensure that you look for a website which is very well facilitated with well-trained moderators and “supervisors” that are qualified mental health professionals.