What We Learned About Online Therapy During COVID-19

The pandemic has taught us that virtual therapy is effective and accessible.

online therapy session

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

With the onset of COVID-19 over a year ago, businesses across the world had to navigate the transition into a digital landscape—therapists included. Online therapy—the practice of therapy via text, audio phone calls, video conferencing, and emails—became the new norm.

While teletherapy existed prior to the 2019 pandemic, with apps like Talkspace and BetterHelp providing mental health services online, it skyrocketed during the pandemic because therapists and clients were left with no other option.

The collective nature of this crisis has taught us all the importance of maintaining our mental health the same way we would our physical health. Now and in a post-pandemic world, this rise in therapy options can only be beneficial to a world where mental health awareness has never been higher.

Therapy Works, In-Person and Online

study by the American Psychological Association (APA) in May of 2020 showcases the shift. The APA surveyed its members and found that 64% of them did not see any of their caseload via telehealth prior to the pandemic. After the onset of the pandemic early in 2020, 85% of the members reported seeing over 75% of their caseload via teletherapy. 

The surge of online therapy was borne out of necessity. Clinicians concerned about the client experience and efficacy of teletherapy were forced to adapt to it amidst a global pandemic—a time in which people across the world struggled with mental health while adapting to unprecedented times.

While it is clear that online therapy is different than in-person therapy, as it lacks the intimacy of being present in a room with another human, and hinders access to certain non-verbal cues, studies have found that teletherapy and in-person therapy are about equally as effective. A meta-analytic study of clinical interventions delivered via teletherapy and in-person shows that interventions via both deliveries produced similar therapeutic outcomes.

Making Self-Care a Priority

What has COVID-19 taught us about mental health care? Crucially, we have learned that treatment can be durable and effective regardless of the method of delivery. It also shows us that online therapy, by nature of technology, can be more accessible for people. At a time when more people than ever have dealt with mental health concerns and acknowledged an increased need for self-care, this accessibility could have an impact long after the pandemic is over.

Instead of driving to a therapist’s office, technology allows for someone to join a session with the click of a button in mere seconds. A 50-minute session is just 50 minutes, rather than 50 minutes plus time spent commuting and rearranging your schedule.

Equalizing Access to Therapy

Teletherapy is not only a timesaver, but allows for people to access therapy from places that may be more convenient. During lockdowns amidst the pandemic, people have been able to start or continue therapy without having to leave their homes. As a therapist, I have had dedicated clients do their sessions on their lunch breaks at work in parked cars. If an hour lunch break is the only time someone has for therapy, teletherapy makes it possible.

Online therapy also adds to the number of therapists that a person has access to, which can be helpful for people in rural areas, those who do not have specialized therapists in their area, and those who are looking for a therapist that fits a particular demographic (queer-friendly, intersectional, Black or Latinx, etc).

State licensing laws allow for therapists to see clients located anywhere within a particular state, no matter the distance. For example, someone in Northern California can see a therapist via teletherapy in Southern California despite the 6-hour distance in between.

Broadening the search for a therapist by utilizing teletherapy is also beneficial for those who have encountered therapists with waitlists in their surrounding areas. People looking to start therapy straightaway may be better able to find a therapist with immediate openings if they can cast a wider net.

Dealing With Digital Complications

While teletherapy can be more accessible, it also presents difficulties for people who do not have access to computers, smartphones, or landlines, and/or are not proficient with technology. Privacy may also be an issue, as stay-at-home orders have led to many people working from home throughout the pandemic.

Finding space to talk about personal subjects, which may pertain to people living in the household, can be tricky. This is where a therapy session in a parked car or even a bathroom comes in handy (I’ve had clients do both).

Getting Back to Normal

Although there was a massive rise in teletherapy during the pandemic, in-person therapy will eventually resume. If you prefer sitting in the room with a therapist who can hand you tissues, and has full access to your verbal and non-verbal communication, have no fear.

Online therapy is here to stay, but it will not be the only means of accessing mental health treatment. Many therapists, myself included, enjoy face-to-face connection with clients. How quickly in-person therapy resumes will be determined by a few different factors: each individual therapist’s comfort level going back to an office, vaccination distribution, COVID variants, and more.

Whether you would like to continue online therapy or transition to in-person therapy, having a conversation with your treatment provider is the first step. Ask questions such as:

  • Will you be returning to the office for sessions?
  • If you are resuming in-person sessions, what are your office policies in regard to COVID? Will masks be required? Will I need proof of vaccination?
  • What would a transition from online therapy to therapy in-person look like?
  • Are you going to continue utilizing online therapy when things open back up?

A Word From Verywell

Regardless of how you access mental health care, it is important to continue making time for it as life changes, even as things eventually return to normal. Whether or not you're vaccinated, Routines will be different as people start heading back into offices, driving the kids to school, traveling, spending time with friends and family they have not seen in a while.

If you need to move your ongoing therapy appointment to adapt to another new norm, talk to your therapist about it. Advocate for yourself. While the pandemic will one day be done with, your mental health care deserves to be an ongoing priority.

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  1. Batastini AB, Paprzycki P, Jones ACT, MacLean N. Are videoconferenced mental and behavioral health services just as good as in-person? A meta-analysis of a fast-growing practiceClin Psychol Rev. 2021;83:101944. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101944.