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Is Virtual Therapy As Effective As In-Person Treatment?

One of the many changes fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase in the availability and popularity of online therapy options. As of an American Psychological Association survey taken in November of 2020, 64 percent of therapists were seeing all of their patients remotely (up from 1 percent pre-pandemic) with another 32 percent offering a mix of remote and face to face treatment. 

It’s a trend that isn’t likely to reverse entirely even as life slowly returns to its pre-pandemic baseline, even aside from whatever new threat the as-of-yet unknown factor of Omicron poses. Yet, for many patients, this may not be an entirely bad thing

Pros Of Virtual Vs In-Person Therapy

Though research on teletherapy is currently limited and may be confounded by the fact that most teletherapy trials have been done on patients with relatively mild symptoms, studies (linked below) do suggest that teletherapy can be an effective treatment for depression and for a variety of anxiety disorders. Another recent study suggested that over 90 percent of telepsychiatry patients were satisfied with their sessions and felt they could present the same information to their therapists as they could in person.

Among the most important pros of virtual therapy is that it makes psychological treatment far more accessible.  While some states limit mental health practitioners from treating patients across state lines, 22 of them have no such barriers, making therapy more possible in areas where practitioners are scarce.

Teletherapy is also often safer or more feasible for disabled or immunocompromised clients, clients who have transportation difficulties, or who have childcare or work responsibilities that make attending therapy in person practically or financially unfeasible.

Even for clients who could theoretically come in person, virtual visits are easier to schedule, and therefore clients may be more likely to stick to therapy because it is more convenient—therapists have reported fewer cancellations from teletherapy clients. 

Teletherapy can also make options like family therapy possible when family members live in different places and must juggle different schedules, or can allow therapists to be present with their clients in real-time for forms of exposure therapy that would not be possible in an office setting. It can also help patients who find therapy psychologically inaccessible to access treatment, such as those who suffer from agoraphobia, panic attacks, or intense social anxiety. 

Some therapists have also reported more authentic communication from their clients in virtual settings, and patients have reported that they found it easier to open up when they feel “psychologically” separated from their therapist by the barrier of a screen. A similar phenomenon may occur for text based or phone call based therapies (as opposed to more common video conferencing) when clients have information they feel too uncomfortable to share aloud or while being looked at.

Patients may also be more psychologically comfortable at home than in a therapist’s office, or, as some services allow, using a nickname to hide their identity. Teletherapy also removes the possibility of running into someone in or around a physical office, protecting the privacy of patients who do not want the fact that they are in therapy to become public knowledge.

However, though the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patients’ privacy, should cover all virtual and in-person mental health services, it’s worth doing your research to find a service that uses encryption to ensure that protection is not breached. You should also fully research your service or provider, since the term “therapist” or “counselor” may not always mean a licensed practitioner. 

It’s also noting that while most therapists will charge the same for virtual and in-person sessions, some apps and platforms offer subscription services that can allow for cheaper treatment, and can also help streamline the sometimes difficult process of finding a therapist in the first place. 

Teletherapy also allows greater lifestyle flexibility for therapists who may be facing their own family obligations, and, since therapists have reported that virtual sessions take up nearly 8 times less of their time, may allow them to see more patients, which is particularly important as demand for services appears to be on the rise due to the pandemic’s fallout.

Cons of Virtual Vs In-person Therapy 

One major con of virtual therapy is that it is not appropriate for patients who are in an acutely unstable emotional state, such as if they are suicidal, psychotic, or a recovering addict at high risk of relapse. If a therapist does suspect that a client may be a danger to themselves, they also may have a harder time stepping in to ensure their patients’ safety from afar. 

Another con is that the nonverbal cues that help psychologists accurately assess their patients’ emotional state and that can help build trust and rapport between therapist and patients may not come across in a teletherapy setting, though these cues are not completely lost with video therapy. This may be why patients reported feeling less supported and encouraged during online compared to in-person therapy.

Clients who do not have much privacy at home may also find talking to a therapist difficult if they worry about being overheard, and others may not be comfortable with “letting” the therapist see their home through a video platform. 

Therapy that takes place in a client’s home rather than the more focused and neutral environment of an office may also impede the feeling of therapy being “separate” from everyday life. The absence of a focused environment may also allow both therapists and clients to be more distracted.

This is especially true of children, who have a lower attention span, and could also impede the progress of adult clients who feel that their therapist is not giving them their full attention. Some forms of therapy, like art, music, or play therapy, may also be hard or impossible to conduct virtually, and technology glitches like dropped calls or lost connections can also impede progress.

Virtual And In-Person Treatment Options At Reco Intensive 

Though both forms of therapy have their benefits and drawbacks, the one thing the experts do agree on is that any therapy is better than no therapy, which has been proven to be as effective as medication in treating some mental illnesses. 

The matter of virtual or in-person therapy also doesn’t have to be entirely either or; you could try seeing your therapist in person for a few in-person sessions to build connection and then switch to remote, try both out before making a commitment, or choose an ongoing mix of the two depending on your needs. 

Even if you choose to see your therapist primarily in person, perhaps they could allow for the occasional video chat session in the case of a scheduling conflict or emergency, or supplement in-person therapist visits with a lower cost text therapy service. 

At Reco Intensive, we offer virtual intensive outpatient services to clients struggling with all types of addiction along with our in-person treatment program, and encourage clients to choose whichever option works best for them. For more information, feel free to reach out anytime at (561) 464-6533.

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/29/well/mind/in-person-therapy-covid.html

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032713005120?via%3Dihub

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0887618517304474?via%3Dihub

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000579671400076X?via%3Dihub

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1258/135763306777889028

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/well/mind/therapy-appointments-shortages-pandemic.html

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