In today’s society, an estimated 20% of Canadians will personally experience some form of mental illness. Psychotherapy has been shown time and time again as being the most effective treatment for most forms of mental illness. Psychotherapy is traditionally provided by a therapist or counsellor on a face to face basis either individually or as part of a group. Accessing a therapist or counsellor can be difficult for a number of reasons – it can be expensive, wait times can be long, services may be far away or inaccessible for some reason or another, an individual may feel stigmatized by their illness and therefore be wary of attending services or a person may not have the time in their day to attend regular sessions.
One common solution to each of these issues is practicing psychotherapy through technological means, i.e. through video conferencing software, smartphone apps or some other communication device. This type of practice has been termed telepsychology. Telepsychology is not a new practice, as therapists have employed communication technology such as telephones in clinical settings for some time. However the rapid rise of the internet and its related media outlets has meant that telepsychology is gaining significantly more attention in terms of its apparent applicability for treating various aspects of mental illness. Outside of mental illness however, telepsychology is also being incorporated into organizational psychology practice and psychoeducation platforms. A recent study carried out by sports psychologist Corrine Reid and her team even described how they used telepsychology to means to provide ongoing counselling to the Australian men’s gold medal winning hockey team during the 2014 World Cup and Commonwealth games. This appears to be good news for both individuals accessing psychological services and those providing them.
However given the rather rapid rise of this medium of psychotherapy, concerns have been raised about some aspects of the practice. Issues pertaining to privacy and confidentiality are obvious given the nature of online communication. As well as this, there are clear limitations associated with relying on the internet for a session to occur, i.e. the internet coverage is not always reliable. More concerning however, are the questions that have been raised about the effect that not being in the same room can have on the therapeutic relationship. For instance, is subtle but valuable information being lost in the absence of in-person therapy? As well as this, critics of telepsychology have cautioned that this form of therapy might not be suitable for individuals who are at risk of hurting themselves or someone else. If a therapist becomes aware of such risk and are not present with the client, their actions to such risk may be limited.
Despite these limitations, research so far suggests that telepsychology is a viable effective alternative to in-person therapy in some cases. In particular the practice has been associated with as good results for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, and older adults with major depressive disorder, among others. As well as this, client self-reports have revealed positive attitudes and high levels of satisfaction with online psychotherapeutic services. These results suggest that technology may be the key to solving mental health care services access problems.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.