Online Addiction Counseling

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Substance and behavioral addictions can have a physical, emotional, social, and financial impact on a person’s life. Fortunately, effective treatments are available—including online options. Online therapy can be a viable option for people who are dealing with addictions.

Research has found that people who have online therapy for the treatment of substance use disorders show improvement over those who do not receive any treatment.

Techniques

Some evidence-based therapeutic approaches are easier to adapt to an online format than others, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is used most often and focuses on helping people recognize and avoid negative thoughts and actions. This method may be used to help people learn how to recognize triggers that lead to cravings and then learn how to avoid them.
  • Motivational interviewing: Motivational interviewing is another approach that can work in an online format. In this therapy technique, therapists lead structured conversations that help people learn how to recognize how their lives could be different and better if they stop their substance use.

Potential Benefits

Here are some of the benefits online therapy for addiction has over traditional face-to-face therapy.

Enhanced Privacy

Unfortunately, social stigmas still surround addiction treatment. This can cause you to worry about being recognized when arriving or leaving an addiction treatment center. As a result, you may not feel comfortable seeking help.

Being able to access your treatment from anywhere—including the privacy of your own home—can more effectively control who knows about your treatment. It can take some of the fear of treatment away.

More Accessible

An estimated 10% to 12% of people with a substance use disorder don't receive treatment. One reason people don't seek help is their inability to physically access treatment. The availability of online therapy may help improve access to mental health services and make it more likely for people to get treatment.

Online therapy can help people who may not be able to physically attend individual treatments or group meetings get the help that they need.

Online options are also available anytime. Whenever you are feeling an urge or craving, you can reach out to your therapist, work on a self-help module, find educational materials, or connect with a friend who is there to offer support. 

More Options

Online therapy can sometimes serve as an important first step toward more intensive interventions. In some cases, people who try online therapy first may be more likely to seek out traditional, face-to-face treatment services in the future.

Studies have shown that people may also be more likely to stick with face-to-face therapy when it is supplemented with online treatment.

Effectiveness

Traditional addiction treatments tend to be underutilized and have a high dropout rate. This suggests that these traditional options may not be completely meeting people’s needs. Online therapy may help fill this gap for people who are not seeking out or sticking with traditional treatment approaches.

According to a review of studies, online therapy may help you cut back on your substance use immediately after treatment and in long-term follow-up. However, the authors of the review suggest that further research is needed, particularly to explore and compare the effectiveness of different online options.

Some research has indicated that online therapy may actually outperform traditional therapy in a few ways. Findings reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that participants in a web-based treatment had higher success rates and were less likely to drop out of treatment than those who were treated with individual or group counseling.

Potential Drawbacks

Online therapy can be affordable and convenient, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for everyone or every situation. Potential drawbacks might include:

  • It's harder to read body language. Therapists may find it more difficult to read body language when working with people online, particularly if they are not using video conferencing.
  • Sessions might feel less intimate. Since you’re communicating with a therapist through a screen, sessions can feel less personal, which can make it harder to open up and be vulnerable.
  • You may face technical issues. Depending on your location, your internet connection may be insufficient. There can also be occasional disruptions due to bad weather. These technology glitches and related obstacles can sometimes complicate the process.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm or experiencing psychosis, online therapy may not be appropriate. However, online hotlines, chat lines, and text resources can put you in touch with professionals who are trained and prepared to help.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Tips and Strategies

There are some ways to help get more out of your online therapy experience:

  • Build a rapport with your therapist. It's important to feel that your therapist is genuine and empathetic so that you feel comfortable, safe, and respected. Talk to your therapist about what you can do to build this rapport in an online format.
  • If you are transitioning from face-to-face therapy to online treatment, talk to your therapist about how the process will work and how you will deal with any issues that arise.
  • If you are transitioning from a traditional support group to an online group, spend some time researching what’s available to determine what might be right for you and your needs. How will the group meet? How many people are in the group? What level of participation is required? All of these factors might play a role in determining what you get out of the group, so focus on finding something that you know you will be comfortable with.

What to Expect

Online addiction treatment relies on technology to deliver or enhance psychotherapy. There are a number of different online therapy options available for addiction treatment. These include:

  • Therapist-led online therapy: Therapists can use online video, phone calls, emails, and chat to meet with clients virtually. Therapy sessions might occur much as they would in a regular office setting, but using online tools. FaceTime and Skype are not HIPAA compliant and once COVID-related allowances are removed, a therapist or doctor will have to have a HIPAA compliant platform such as VSee, Doxy.me, or Zoom.
  • Computer-assisted therapy: People can also follow interactive, online curricula that guide them through a treatment process with little to no interaction with a therapist. You might watch instructional content, take computerized assessments, follow tutorials, and complete homework assignments as you work through a predefined set of lessons.
  • Web-assisted therapy: This approach may utilize mobile apps or online therapy websites to guide people through sessions or activities.
  • Technology-supplemented therapy: This process may combine traditional face-to-face therapy with technology such as text messaging, phone calls, video chats, or mobile apps.

The approach that works best for you depends on a variety of factors. The severity of your symptoms may dictate the intensity of the treatment you need. If you require hospitalization, long-term residential treatment, or supervised detox, for example, then online therapy would not be an appropriate choice.

Your access and comfort with technology can also play a role in which option will work best for you. Your therapist’s comfort with technology can also determine how the treatment is delivered.

One important thing to remember is that you don’t necessarily need to choose just one type of delivery. In many cases, you might end up with a combination of therapist-led, computer-assisted, and web-assisted therapy. 

How to Get Started

For anyone looking to receive treatment for addiction, reaching out to a qualified professional is usually the first step. You can search an online directory for individual therapists, ask your primary care provider for a referral, or research online therapy providers.

Just as with face-to-face therapy, it's important to find a qualified therapist with whom you feel comfortable. While the process of finding someone you think you can connect with may seem a little daunting, it’s well worth the effort.

A Word From Verywell

Online therapy for addiction is not the exact same as traditional treatments, but that doesn’t mean that it is inferior. It can be an essential and effective tool in your treatment arsenal. Talk to a doctor or therapist about whether this approach to treatment is appropriate for your needs.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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