Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/9/2021
Dealing with a mental health issue? You’re not alone. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that 51.5 million Americans, or approximately one in every five adults, lives with a mental illness.
One of the most popular mental health services used to treat mental health issues and improve mental wellbeing is the use of therapy.
Thanks to advances in technology, therapy is no longer something only accessible with a trip to a mental health professional’s office.
If you’re considering online therapy, a question you probably have is: how does it compare to conventional in-person therapy in terms of effectiveness?
Below, we’ve looked into the research regarding this emerging type of therapy to find out whether or not it works and how it compares to traditional forms of therapy that take place in a mental health professional’s office.
We’ve also covered how you can use online therapy to treat common mental health problems like stress, depression and anxiety.
Online therapy is exactly what it sounds like: therapy that’s done online, rather than face to face in a therapist’s office.
Instead of meeting a therapist in person, online therapy services allow you to take part in personalized, individual therapy through text, voice or video chat. Like in-person therapy, online therapists are qualified mental health providers and that offer total privacy.
Online therapy offers several advantages. First, since it’s something you can do from home, it’s easy to access. There’s no need to drive or use public transportation to visit a therapist’s office for each session — instead, it’s something you can do on your computer or mobile device via an online therapy platform.
Second, it’s often a major time-saver. Since you don’t need to travel to your therapist’s physical location, each therapy session takes up less of your day.
Third, it’s comfortable. Instead of spending your time in an unfamiliar place that may not make you feel open and at ease, you can talk to a professional in an environment that’s both familiar and comfortable for you — your home.
Finally, there’s the cost factor. Online therapy is often more cost-effective than more traditional, in-person therapy, making it an option that’s worth considering if you want to minimize the costs of seeking help.
Because many of online therapists use designated online therapy platforms, it makes figuring out pricing and payment simple to navigate.
Now, with these advantages in mind, the next question is: does online therapy actually work? Several studies have looked at the effects of online therapy for people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Many of these studies have found that online therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy as a developing piece of the mental health services spectrum.
Others have highlighted some of the unique advantages of online therapy, such as efficacy and cost.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders compared the outcomes of depression patients who took part in internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to those who took part in face-to-face therapy sessions.
The groups were roughly equal in size and each took part in eight weeks of treatment.
After the treatment period, the researchers measured their results using the Beck Depression Inventory-II (a depression-related questionnaire) while using several other variables.
At the end of the treatment period, both groups showed improvements. However, three months after the treatment ended, the people in the online group were relatively stable, while the people in the face-to-face group reported that some of their depressive symptoms had returned.
The researchers concluded that both forms of therapy were beneficial, but that the online option appeared to have better long-term efficacy.
A different study looked at the effects of online cognitive behavioral therapy for people with anxiety disorders.
After seven to 10 weeks, 46 percent of the people that took part in online treatment displayed a clinically significant improvement in their symptoms. The researchers found that the total costs were lower for the online therapy participants than for a control group.
Overall, the researchers concluded that individually tailored online therapy is an “effective and cost-effective treatment” option for people with anxiety disorders.
More recently, a meta-analysis of 64 separate clinical trials published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders concluded that internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) is an effective, acceptable and practical form of mental healthcare.
Although research regarding online therapy for conditions other than depression and anxiety is limited, some studies have looked at its effects on other mental health conditions.
In a review published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare in 2018, researchers looked at data from 41 different scientific papers on the effectiveness of teletherapy for former military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
They concluded that teletherapy is a viable alternative to in-person therapy, and that it has the potential to increase access to therapy for people that may need it.
In short, the research that’s available right now generally shows that online therapy is effective, particularly for conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Whether you’re a busy professional without time to travel to face-to-face therapy or just prefer the comfort of your home to the less familiar environment of a therapist’s office, online therapy offers several unique advantages.
If you’re feeling anxious, depressed, stressed or simply unhappy with your life, signing up for online therapy is a great first step.
You can get the best results from online therapy by taking a few steps before you begin. Think of this as helping your therapist help you, so to speak. Try to:
Choose a therapist you can connect with. Just like with face-to-face therapy, it’s vital that you choose a therapy professional you feel comfortable interacting with. Try to choose a therapist that specializes in the specific issue you’re facing. Feel free to ask them about their professional background, areas of expertise or any other things that you think are relevant before you start treatment.
Make sure you have a reliable internet connection. While in-person, traditional therapy allows your therapy professional to see things like your body language, you need to realize that with online therapy, the only thing they’ll be able to see is your facial expression and some body language cues.
If you want your therapy professional to be able to see all of this to the best of their ability, it’s really important to make sure your internet connection is stable and fast.
Choose a quiet, comfortable part of your home. Effective therapy is all about honest, clear communication. Choose a quiet and distraction-free environment in which you feel comfortable to open up and talk honestly with your therapy professional.
If you live with a roommate or partner, consider asking them to give you extra privacy during your online sessions.
Set time specifically for therapy. During therapy, it’s important not to let any distracting thoughts about your work, study or other commitments get in the way of talking with your therapy professional.
Set time specifically for therapy. As your online therapy time approaches, try to relax and let other thoughts sink to the back of your mind. This way, you’ll be able to focus on your conversation with your therapist.
Don’t feel embarrassed to open up. Therapy can feel awkward, especially when you first start working with your therapy professional. Try to share your thoughts and feelings openly as you become more familiar with them and online therapy as a whole. Our guide to talk therapy
goes into more detail about what therapy is and what you can expect once you get started.
Be consistent. Therapy is effective, but its results aren’t immediate. Even with regular online therapy, it may take weeks or months before you see any improvements in your thoughts, feelings and/or behavior. Be consistent and stick with therapy, even if you don’t notice any changes after the first few sessions. Research shows that duration of therapy is usually associated with better outcomes.
Online therapy offers numerous benefits, including the convenience of not having to leave your home to talk to a mental health professional.
Research generally shows that online therapy works well as a treatment for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Some studies show that it may even produce more positive outcomes than a traditional therapy session.
We offer several convenient forms of online therapy, including psychiatry, individual therapy and anonymous support groups.
If you’re feeling depressed, anxious, stressed or simply frustrated with life, you can learn more about making progress in your mental health journey with our mental health resources.