Turns out, online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy

The ongoing pandemic has been challenging for everyone. In addition to the direct threat it posed, it put the entire world into survival mode, causing a great deal of stress for virtually everyone on the planet. Unsurprisingly, this has taken a big toll on our mental health.

Depression rates have surged during the pandemic, as have anxiety and suicidal thoughts. To make matters even worse, access to therapy and support has been hampered by restrictions — so when people needed therapy most, therapy was least available. But there’s good news on the horizon. A review of studies found that e-therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy, and in some ways, it may be even better.

E-therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be efficient in dealing with a number of problems, ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol and marital problems. It’s essentially a type of talking therapy, which led many practitioners to believe that face-to-face talking is an important part of it. But that may not be the case.

Several previous studies have suggested that delivering CBT via internet might also be a good alternative. With online communication becoming much more reliable in recent years, the advent of smartphones, and virtually ubiquitous connectivity, the prospect of online therapy has also become much more attractive.

But as it’s so often the case, drawing general conclusions from small studies is not easy. So a team of researchers led by Candice Luo of McMaster University explored 17 different studies published on the topic.

“Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a widely used treatment for depression. However, limited resource availability poses several barriers to patients seeking access to care, including lengthy wait times and geographical limitations. This has prompted health care services to introduce electronically delivered CBT (eCBT) to facilitate access,” the researchers write in the study.

According to their results, online therapy was more effective than face-to-face CBT at reducing depression symptom severity, while being less costly and easier to carry out (as you don’t need to go to the therapist’s office). However, there were large differences between individual studies, and this heterogeneity still left some questions. Overall, though, online therapy appeared to be a very promising replacement for face-to-face sessions.

“With the current reliance and accessibility of technology to increasing number of people worldwide, serious consideration in utilizing technology should be given to maximize accessibility for depression treatments. Our results found eCBT is at least as effective as face to face CBT, thus eCBT should be offered if preferred by patients and therapists.”

The findings were echoed by a separate review that analyzed 12 studies. This second review focused on the long-term effects of eCBT. It makes a lot of sense — maybe in the short term, the effects are better (or comparable), but what if they’re not as long-lasting?

According to the study, although some of the effects of e-therapy subside after two years, the overall benefits are undeniable, and produce improvements in terms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.

“While effects may be overestimated, it is likely that therapist-supported ICBT can have enduring effects. Long-term follow-up data should be collected for more conditions and new technologies like smartphone-delivered treatments,” the researchers conclude.

However, there are some caveats in this study as well — most notably, the studies were either from Sweden or from the Netherlands, and may not carry out to other populations.

Overall, while there’s still much to be said about this form of therapy, existing evidence seems to suggest that online therapy is a valuable form of therapy. Not only is it more convenient (both for the patient and for the therapist), but it can also be a more palatable option for those who see therapy as still carrying a stigma. Furthermore, being in one’s own house (as opposed to an unfamiliar environment) may make the patient more relaxed and may increase the productivity of the sessions.

The last word is likely not out on this, but at the very least, it’s an option worth considering.

At a time when everyone is under large amounts of stress, we have the means to carry out therapy from the comfort of our homes. Have you ever tried it, and if yes, how was it?

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