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Is Online Counseling Right for You?

The Pros and Cons of Internet Counseling for Panic Disorder

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Updated October 09, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Online counseling for panic disorder.

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The Internet has become a part of everyday life, with more and more people logging on to do everything from pay their bills to order a pizza. Over the past decade, there has also been an increased demand for online mental health services. Despite the growth of online counseling, many debate whether it can be both an ethical and effective way to provide therapeutic services.

Perhaps you have considered using online counseling to help treat your panic disorder. Research has determined that it is an effective form of treatment, especially for those with either panic disorder or PTSD. However, there are some drawbacks that can potentially hinder your treatment outcomes. Below is a list of some of the common pros and cons of online therapy.

Pro: Convenience

Online counseling provides the client with the convenience of being able to contact a counselor for immediate help instead of having to call an office and wait for an appointment. If immediate help is not necessary, the client has the opportunity to browse through counselor profiles and determine which therapist they would like to work with. Both client and counselor work together to decide on a time for weekly online meetings.

Individuals who have difficulty obtaining counseling services, such as those that are housebound due to a debilitating mental or physical condition, will have accessibility to mental health professionals without having to leave the comfort of their own home. Online counseling can be especially helpful for those with panic disorder who may be experiencing a diminished quality of life due to their diagnosis. For example, some panic sufferers may have developed avoidance behaviors, such as an inability to drive. Using the internet to talk with a therapist will give them access to the help they need.

Con: Technical Difficulties

It is not uncommon to experience computer or internet service issues. Technical problems that can potentially affect online counseling include issues with computer applications and hardware, power outages, or internet connection. These types of problems can take a long time to repair, which can be extremely frustrating and discouraging. Experiencing technical difficulties can also delay one’s treatment progress. It is important that the therapist and client have a back-up plan in case of such occurrences and have the phone number for technology and computer assistance available at all times.

Pro: Anonymity

Online counseling can be way for individuals who are concerned with the stigma of seeking mental health services to find support without the concerns associated with face-to-face interaction. For example, a person may fear that someone they know will see them going into a therapist’s office or feel intimidated to meet with a therapist in person.

A person may be more comfortable with the idea of finding a therapist from a far away location who can provide help while maintaining their anonymity. Online counseling can also assist in making a client feel more relaxed, allowing the client to easily open up and move quickly towards discussing core personal issues. Studies have indicated that clients are able to form a strong alliance with their online counselor, feeling that the counselor is trustworthy and easy to talk with.

Con: Confidentiality and Identity

One problem with the Internet is that no one is necessarily who they say they are. A person seeking online counseling services can be pretending to be someone else, such as a teen acting like they are an adult. Therapists who are concerned with client identity, often require at least one initial face-to-face meeting with new clients. This can also ease any concerns the client may have about the therapist’s identity. Considering that there are not currently any legal or ethical standards that regulate online counseling, anyone can log onto the Internet and offer therapy services.

Once the identity of the client is ensured, it is important that their identity remains protected. One of the most debated concerns with online counseling involves how to ethically maintain clients’ confidentiality. There are many issues that can compromise confidentiality. For example, a client’s computer could be stolen or another family member may go onto the computer and easily obtain access to private information from the counseling session. Using virus scan software and keeping the computer password protected are a must when receiving online counseling services. Also, online therapy service providers need to utilize Secure Sockets Layers (SSL), which use encryption that protect text information as it travels through or is stored on the Internet.

Despite the promising outlook of online counseling, there are some major setbacks to take into account. The convenience of these services can be ruined by technical difficulties. The advantage of anonymity can be compromised by issues of confidentiality. When deciding to seek therapeutic services through the Internet, make sure you are going through a reputable company and consider all of the pros and cons of online counseling.

Sources:

Abbott, J.-A. M., Klein, B., & Ciechomski, L. “Best practices in online therapy” Journal of Technology in Human Services 2008 26: 360-375.

Derrig-Palumbo, K., & Zeine, F.“Online therapy: A therapist's guide to expanding your practice” 2005 New York: W. W. Norton.

Midkiff D.M., & Wyatt, J. “Ethical issues in the provision of online mental health services” Journal of Technology in Human Services 2008 26(2): 310 -332.

Griffiths, M.“Online therapy for addictive behaviors”CyberPsychology & Behavior 2005 8(6): 555-561.

Hanley, T., & Reynolds, D. J. “Counselling psychology and the internet: A review of the quantitative research into online outcomes and alliances within text-based therapy” Counselling Psychology Review 2009 24: 4-13.

Rochlen, A. B., Zack, J. S., & Speyer, C. “Online therapy: Review of relevant definitions, debates, and current empirical support” Journal of Clinical Psychology 2004 60: 269-283.

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