Use of ‘E-Therapy’ Grows Amid Concerns
The rise of "e-therapy" -- mental health counseling through the Internet -- has enabled and encouraged many people to seek treatment who otherwise might not, but many mental health professionals are concerned that "cyber counseling" increases the likelihood of misdiagnoses and untreated maladies, the Washington Post reports. According to Martha Ainsworth, a consumer advocate who runs Metanoia.com, her own accreditation site for e-therapists, the number of online therapists has increased from 12 in 1996 to more than 300 today. Warren Shepell Consultants, an employee benefits firm, reports that "500 corporations have signed up for online counseling for their workers as part of a suite of services it began last fall." The appeal of cyber counseling, the Post reports, is simple: the anonymity of the Internet allows patients to go "online without feeling inhibited or judged;" in addition, conversing by email allows patients to "carefully articulate their thoughts on a sensitive subject without feeling put on the spot." Still, despite the rising demand, the e-therapy medium is "so new that there is no reliable information about how effective it is, or which types of conditions best suit counseling on the computer." E-therapy practioners, in fact, often prefer the term "coaching" instead of therapy, and admit that online counseling is "no substitute for face-to-face treatment." According to Ainsworth, e-therapy is best applied to people who "suffer the normal losses and changes in life," such as relationships ending, a view shared by Cedric Speyer, head of e-counseling at Shepell. "We are more short term and solution-focused. It's the difference between fixing something to get the car running or having a complete overhaul," he said.
There are, however, many professionals who believe that e-therapy on any level is a bad, and potentially dangerous, practice. The Post reports that "e-therapy's strength, allowing an uninhibited electronic discussion -- may also be its greatest weakness," as serious mental illnesses could be missed because patients can "sculpt their story by editing what they write, consciously or unconsciously derailing the treatment." Sharon Levander, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who "toyed with the idea of e-therapy but decided against it," said that online counseling produces an "incomplete picture" that can prove dangerous, adding, "When [patients] come to you about a specific issue, there's often an underlying problem that needs to be addressed." And Gregg Bloche, a psychiatrist and professor of law at Georgetown University and "one of e-therapy's most outspoken critics," said that online counseling could act as a "sugar pill" to patients who are suicidal or homicidal, adding, "I think people are going to get killed." Bloche is also concerned that the growing popularity of e-therapy could limit the already "scant" public and private coverage of mental health treatments. "Anything that allows the government to rationalize doing even less to get people proper treatment and keep them out of the system is going to hurt society," he added (Marshall, Washington Post, 6/10).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.