Coronavirus has continued to spread across the world, with more than four million confirmed cases. This pandemic has changed the world, to say the least. The economic downturn has caused a high level of emotional distress for a lot of people—levels that experts warn may lead to a national mental health crisis.
COVID-19 has not only changed the way we live our daily lives; it has also changed the way people seek therapy—online. The pandemic has already robbed many people of their livelihood, or at least their sense of safety. People literally feel trapped, which is leading to a spike in various mental illnesses like anxiety, depression and substance addiction.
For a lot of people who are stuck at home during this time, online therapy is the only option if they need to receive mental health services. Even therapists and other mental health practitioners have made the switch to teletherapy services, rather than meeting their clients in person. This has left many people finding the cheapest offers for online therapy.
While seeking help for your mental health condition is the best thing to do, it is important to be careful when it comes to ‘free’ therapies, as there may be risks.
Online therapy is a fairly new form of treatment, through which individuals get therapy over the internet. This therapy might come in the form of video conferences, private message boards, forums, text messaging and/or phone calls. Online therapy, or teletherapy, is convenient. You can receive mental illness support from the comfort of your home, with only the push of a button.
In order to help slow the spread of this pandemic, teletherapy has grown to be the new norm. A lot of people do not understand how this form of therapy works, though, leading to misconceptions and online forums that provide mental health advice to whoever is willing to take it.
There are some risks that can come with these free online therapeutic services. While they might be useful for ‘right there and then’ assistance and support, the pool of these online ‘helpers’ might not offer the best services for every individual.
Individuals may find that their unrestricted access to a therapist is suddenly no longer available, mostly because their trial period has ended. There are also some platforms that offer free signups, but they require payment before you can access a licensed mental health professional.
Even if your trial provides you with a person to speak with, you will most likely not be getting mental health advice from a professional. Your counsellor might not be particularly good at helping you with your problem, and/or is most likely not a licensed therapist at all.
Licensed therapists provide services within the boundaries of their competence. They are trained to help you address and treat your problems, based on your needs and their competence. With free mental health platforms, you might only be getting advice from a paraprofessional, or just another person behind a keyboard.
Q&A and chat forums
The pool of options when you look up ‘free therapies’ includes question-and-answer forums, peer-mediated groups and other non-evidence-based services. These platforms allow different individuals to post their symptoms and experiences without restrictions.
Individuals post their own mental health advice and questions, along with answering those of their peers, on each platform. Most of these chat rooms are available to just about anyone who has an email, so responses can range from incredibly helpful to downright harmful, and everything else in between.
Keep in mind that your mental health needs are unique to you. Sharing the same diagnosis with another individual does not mean you both experience the illness the same way, and this is why a professional should be employed. A professional, licensed therapist will provide assistance by suggesting evidence-based practices that are UNIQUE to an individual’s experiences and needs.
Many therapists are lifelong learners who continue to earn multiple certifications throughout their careers. They are constantly learning and being trained to help address different mental health needs. This is why you cannot trust your mental health needs to another stranger behind your computer screen.
Privacy and security
Privacy is a big issue when it comes to free online therapy. Many times, you do not know what or who you will get. Conventional thought directs us to communicate with people we know and trust, but oftentimes, we find it necessary to speak with a stranger: someone unbiased, with nothing to gain or lose by hearing what we want to say.
However, while you are trusting your personal information and health issues to a stranger, you run the risk of a security breach.
Accessing platforms that are not HIPAA and APA regulated could increase your risk of being hacked, downloading a virus onto your computer, or accessing unsecured electronic files and/or phishing scams. A lot of online mental health forums are neither regulated nor secured, which increases your risk of being hacked or scammed.
Licensed mental health professionals are bound to follow ethical codes and guidelines. They must keep your information confidential. They are legally bound to take reasonable precautions to make sure your data is safe. If there are any limits when it comes to teletherapy provisions, they are bound to let you (as the patient) know, so you can take steps to control your environment.
Other pitfalls that may come with free counselling services include:
- Being harmed by inappropriate advice.
- Being abandoned by your counsellor (when your trial ends).
- Getting amateur therapists who are unable to help, which may make you feel worse than you did before.
- Losing sight of the reason that prompted you to seek counselling in the first place (for instance, you might become mired in unrelated issues raised within chat groups).
Online therapy is convenient and a great option when you are guaranteed access to a licensed mental health professional. Your mental health needs are important and should be taken seriously.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and you live in the United States, contact your local mental health hotline for assistance. If you’re in Canada, check out this list of resources to find out where to call. For people in other countries who need help, a Google search for “mental health helpline” will yield results.