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Mental health, online therapy and the risk of tech addiction

July 5, 2017

Online mental health services are globally on the rise, counting even cases where studies report that online therapy managed to beat medication in results.

Many online sources on remote therapy come from Australia, where it is easy to see how the geographical considerations may have fueled this method as a convenient mean of delivering treatment for milder affections. Nevertheless, the over-the-Internet therapy is gaining traction in the United States, as well as in Europe, with examples of dedicated platforms and online communities raising considerable sums in funding, as well as collaborating with a growing number of licensed therapists, volunteers and patients.

Online mental health therapy benefits

  • Offering geographically independent services to the patients in need would be the main benefit (a trait specific to all forms of telehealth services); people can choose their specialist that suits them the best, regardless of location;
  • Stress-free, more private sessions, in that patients do not have to worry about being seen in the specialists’ waiting room and find it less challenging to open up via this method;
  • Flexible appointments, which may translate into the therapists working from their home office or setting up less conventional meeting hours that suit themselves and their patients’ schedule better;
  • Cost saving criteria would be another reason motivating patients to choose online sessions; by having this option, those who would need to continue their previously face-to-face program but are unable to afford it can remain in touch with their doctors and follow through with their recovery process.

Disadvantages of online mental health therapy

  • Not all mental health affections are treatable online, for example social phobia is clashing with remote sessions due to its inherent nature – it makes no sense treating someone who resents face to face encounters by conducting discussions via the Internet;
  • The technology mediated services depend on both parties having the necessary technology and a robust Internet connectivity that supports clear, instant video streaming (another trait specific to all forms of telehealth);
  • The impossibility of prescribing drugs and the limitations set by certain health insurers who do not cover the costs of such remote appointments;
  • The difficulty for the specialists to dispose of non-verbal clues on the patients’ state; even if the video connectivity may provide some visual hints on the state of a person, these might prove insufficient in the cases where the whole body language is relevant, or where the fact that a patient may have had alcohol is detected by the doctor only in person, although the patient may deny that he or she had consumed alcoholic beverages; that is why doctors choose to see some cases only face-to-face;
  • Cyber-security issues that might prove the idea of increased privacy via online sessions to be risky and shallow; if a doctor can guarantee a certain level of security when it comes to the materials stored in his/her own office, the problem changes its parameters entirely when it comes to the online environment – nobody can absolutely guarantee communications are not hacked, and the responsibility does not lay with the patient, the doctor, and not even with the Internet provider; if a breach takes place the victim remains to deal with the results, which can prove highly unpleasant for online mental patients; although the idea that the online environment is unsafe is deemed less worrying than the case where patients benefit from no specialized help whatsoever – as clinical hypnotherapist Fiona Brennan puts it.

The difference between online self-help and online therapy

In the case of online mental health self-help, patients receive access to a bundle of online resources, as specialists previously organized them. Whether they follow the instructions on how to go through and apply these resources or not is a matter of free will, and there are various features via which these online websites decline their responsibility.

The information formula is tailored per type of affection, not per person, and the dynamics is rather unilateral. Even if it exists an exchange of information between the patient and those who provide the resources, the person is independent in its quest for data and for the way he/she applies what they have learned.

Online mental health therapy comes with licensed specialists, interactive sessions and guided activities. The patient remains as such, and the employed protocols are identical with the in-office protocols. For exemplification, you may check the way such programs are presented here.

The most common type of therapy delivered online would be the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), since it focuses on the ongoing daily behavior of the patients, trying to steer them towards a safer, more detached (from their inner issues) attitude. The therapist listens to the patients’ daily reports and intervenes to guide him/her towards the goal-behavior, a type of interaction that suits the online sessions perfectly.

Other examples comprise online relaxation treatments or online counseling. The specialist listens to the patients and guides their way towards understanding and objectifying the issues they have met, or employs guided relaxation techniques.

Collateral risks – developing a technology addiction

It is a known fact that manifestations of mental issues tend to transform more easily then they tend to let themselves be cured. Often when the inner cause remains untreated or insufficiently approached, its exterior manifestation may seem it has disappeared, when in fact it only mutated into another habit that eases the uncomfortable sensation.

That is why we cannot help but wonder whether during the online therapy sessions patients do not risk developing an underlying, almost invisible condition: technology addiction. Associating their daily relief moments with going online and employing technology to connect with their therapists, some might easily permute their issues on this new relationship they maintain with modern technology.

Of course this may also happen when people interact with technology on their own and manifest daily moments of escapism while wondering through the Internet alleys. Nevertheless, depending on each individual, this may often prove futile or disappointing, and send the person back to his/hers real life struggles and victories, eventually. When people open their devices for a session that will surely make them feel less bad about their issues, the devices certainly associate with the certitude of well-being. What are the risks involved in this?

Weighing potential risks versus the certainty of a remotely available treatment in view of establishing the best equation for  person’s mental state – here’s a dilemma that each patient might have to resolve individually for now, with the help of their therapist, who might decide live meetings are better, or that, on the contrary, online sessions suffice.