Online therapy is something of a buzz term these days, with nearly every major and minor publication alike plugging this relatively recent mental health innovation.

In times prior, the only means of receiving professional therapy was by visiting an onsite specialist, and while many still prefer that method to the more nebulous web model, those figures are slowly shifting. But why? What makes online therapy comparable to traditional in-office therapy?

For the uninitiated, let’s discuss how online therapy works before moving on. Online therapy, as the name suggests, refers to a website or smartphone app in which users speak with licensed therapists or trained listeners via chat messenger, video conference call, email, or in rarer occasions, by phone (also known as tele-therapy).

All communication and session bookings are carried out securely through the chosen communication modality, with fees either charged per session or through a recurring monthly payment.

Just like in-office therapy, online therapy can help those who struggle with common mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, relationship/family issues.

While users never actually meet their therapist in person, all sessions are conducted similarly to office appointments. Additionally, users are expected to honor their agreed-upon appointment times and may risk being charged a fee if they cancel without sufficient notice.

There are some key differences between in-office and online therapy that are worth taking note of, especially if you are seeking professional mental help for the first time. As with any matter pertaining to one’s personal health, what’s right for one person may not stack up for another.

In-Office vs. At Home

Arguably the most notable difference between traditional in-office therapy and the online platform is physical location.

While seeing an onsite therapist requires visiting a brick-and-mortar establishment, online therapy sessions are conducted entirely through one’s electronic device, enabling them to engage from the comfort and privacy of their chosen surroundings, usually a home or private office.

Most online therapy users speak with their therapist via chat messenger and video conference, with additional email and telephone options.

Online therapy has proven to be especially beneficial for those with unreliable transportation, limited scheduling availability, or anxiety about visiting an onsite therapist.

Timing Is Everything

Conventional office hours typically follow the Monday thru Friday 9-5 model, with little leeway on either side. For those who work long hours or hold complicated schedules, this can greatly hinder access to an in-office therapist.

Online therapy users can schedule sessions at less restrictive hours, with many online therapists offering late night and weekend availability.

Can You Put A Price Tag on Mental Health?

The short and sad answer is, yes. While most would argue that adequate mental health care is a human right, unfortunately very few have access to it at little or no cost.

With the average therapy session costing anywhere from $100-$300 an hour and insurance companies giving the notorious run-around, it’s no small wonder so many people forgo seeking professional help.

Online therapy generally charges a much smaller fee per session, or otherwise carries a monthly membership fee. Additionally, there are a number of free online counseling sites in which users can communicate with trained listeners, engage in guided group chats, or access free mental health materials.

Who Am I Speaking With?

There’s some confusion about the validity of online counselors, and the apprehension is understandable. While an in-office therapist must be fully licensed to practice, as with anything online, there’s always a degree of uncertainty.

The truth is, all legitimate online therapy sites only enlist licensed and experienced therapists, with prospective users able to review their bios and credentials, as well as read peer reviews.

Alternately, free online counseling sites may employ volunteer “listeners” who have undergone extensive training beforehand, or offer group support chats guided by a mediator.

How Safe Is My Information?

The internet isn’t exactly a bastion of security, and many are wary of using an online platform for sharing incredibly private information.

Fortunately, all reputable online therapy sites carry steel-tight privacy policies and encourage users to opt for the platform-hosted chat messengers and direct video options for communicating with their therapist.

Additionally, all online therapists must adhere to the doctor-patient confidentiality code of ethics, which means nothing you reveal during online sessions can be repeated or reposted elsewhere.

Which One Is Right for Me?

Your mental health is an extremely personal matter, and ultimately only you can decide which method of help is right for you. While many still prefer traditional in-office therapy, the growing rise of online popularity is certainly giving the former a run for its money.

With so many people working outside of the 9-5 timeframe or having no reliable means of transportation, online therapy has opened up possibilities that simply weren’t feasible even a decade ago.

In a recent article published through the American Psychological Association, assistant director of psychological services at the Boston-based telehealth company American Well, Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, noted that online therapy is especially ideal for first-time therapy seekers who aren’t sure what to expect, and often go on to pursue in-office care once they’re more comfortable.