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Does online therapy work? Why experts support online therapy platforms.

Virtual counseling may still seem strange, but psychologists, therapists and research agree — online therapy can be an excellent option to bolster mental health.

Does online therapy work? Why experts support online therapy platforms.

Online therapy has been around for years, but it really took off during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As patients traded in-person office visits for at-home talk therapy, they learned firsthand how convenient it is. Now, 38% of Americans say they've used "telehealth" services — a sharp uptick from 31% in fall 2020.

But with all the buzz surrounding online therapy, one major question remains: Does it work? After all, the convenience is obvious, but if you're investing your time and money in any kind of therapy, you want to make sure it's effective. Here's what you need to know about online therapy from the mental health experts who provide it, along with how to know whether it's a good fit for you.

Online therapy, also known as teletherapy, e-therapy and e-counseling, is a form of talk therapy that's done via video call, voice call, text message or even email. Most mental health providers do online therapy using video calls through a secure portal to mimic the feel of in-person therapy, says Thea Gallagher, clinical psychologist, assistant professor at New York University's Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast.

Research supports the use of online therapy to treat a range of mental health conditions. For example, a 2022 analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials that included 931 patients found that there were "no significant differences" posttreatment between people who used telehealth services and those who met with their therapists in person. That was across the board, including how much patients' symptoms improved, how well they functioned afterward and how satisfied they felt with their experience.

Online therapy is effective for treating a range of mental health conditions, research shows. One meta-analysis published in 2021 found that patients had "substantial and significant improvement" in symptoms after doing online therapy, with researchers concluding that online therapy is no less effective than in-person sessions. The researchers also found that online talk was most effective for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and for mood disorders, including depression. A small 2022 study found that online counseling was effective in helping students with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.

Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness in Pennsylvania, tells Yahoo that she's seen success with her patients who have OCD: “Through teletherapy, I have been able to help clients complete exposures in their homes, often where their OCD-related fears are strongest.”

Understandably, patients with social anxiety can also benefit — at least at first, so says Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of adults with anxiety, mood disorders and relationship difficulties. In fact, “it’s almost safer from an anxiety standpoint if you’re behind a screen,” she says.

But online therapy may simply be a sensible choice for people because it’s convenient. It can be tough to find the time to drive to a session, wait to be seen and drive back. “Online therapy works the best for working people or new parents,” Gallagher says. “It creates greater access with fewer limitations.” Working parents are usually big fans “because it allows for more flexibility in fitting self-care into your life,” Gallagher says.

It also opens up access to people, licensed clinical psychologist Juanita Guerra tells Yahoo. “Online therapy is ideal for individuals that live in remote areas where having access to a variety of mental health practitioners or modalities is limited,” she says. “It is ideal also for individuals with physical limitations that make it challenging to go into an office, or mental health challenges that prevent them from leaving their homes.”

Max Williams tells Yahoo that he decided to get web-based help when he was in the process of launching his app, HeroBot.

"I sought online therapy primarily because I was experiencing significant stress and anxiety related to the pressures of running a startup," he says. "The isolation exacerbated these feelings from the pandemic and the relentless pace of the tech industry. I realized I needed professional support to help manage my mental health and maintain my effectiveness as a leader."

Williams says that his experience was "overwhelmingly positive" and that he appreciated the easy access. "Initially, I was skeptical about how effective it would be compared to traditional in-person therapy. However, the convenience of accessing therapy from my home or office made it much easier to fit into my hectic schedule," he says. "I was able to choose from a range of therapists and found one who specialized in working with entrepreneurs and professionals in high-stress environments."

Williams says he also liked the flexibility online therapy offered him. “I could schedule sessions during my lunch breaks or in the evenings, which would have been challenging with traditional therapy,” he says.

While mental health experts generally recommend online therapy, they say there are a few situations where it may not have the same impact as seeing someone in person.

“When someone is in an acute crisis, such as experiencing suicidal/homicidal ideations or acute psychosis, online therapy may not be as effective as in-person therapy,” Guerra says. “Both situations may require an immediate psychiatric evaluation and/or hospitalization, and it will be easier to access this level of help if the individual is present in the therapist's office.”

Although online therapy can be a helpful entry point for people with social anxiety, it may not be effective over time, Gallagher says. “You want to make sure you’re working with someone who will encourage you to do things outside of sessions to make gains in your life,” she says.

People without stable internet access and younger children will often not do as well with online therapy, either, Guerra notes. This is particularly true if your children are always present in your home, not allowing you to have a quiet moment to speak with your therapist.

When her 8-year-old son developed symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder during the height of the pandemic, V. Parks sought an online therapist. “I really liked the convenience factor, and the therapist was great,” she tells Yahoo. “But it was a tricky experience for my son.”

While Parks says her son liked the therapist, he had trouble focusing during their sessions and would spend a lot of time doing things like showing off his toys or coloring. There were also a few times when the connection dropped and her son didn’t tell her, leaving his therapist waiting and ending the session early. “He’s since done in-person therapy and it’s been so much more effective for him,” she says. “I think he was just too young for online therapy."

Zuckerman maintains that online therapy is a good fit for many people. “You have to do your research,” she says. “But most therapists today do offer online therapy, whereas before it was unheard of.”

Ammon sums up her viewpoint: “If you’re considering online therapy, I would pursue that route." She adds, "If your provider suggests that in-person therapy may be more effective, explore their clinical reasoning and decide from there.”

She also points out that it’s OK to switch between live and online talk: “Most clinicians are open to a hybrid model.”

It’s important to do a little research up-front to make sure you see a provider who feels like a good fit. Experts recommend taking these steps.

  • Consider your symptoms. Try to match a therapist's experience with your needs, Gallagher advises. If you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder or know you have the condition, for example, it’s best to look for a therapist who specializes in that.

  • Shop around. “Like with anything else, individuals should compare different sites that offer online therapy to obtain the best practitioner for them,” says Guerra.

  • Contact your insurance company. It can give you a referral and a list of providers who are covered by your plan, Guerra notes.

  • Ask around. Contact family members and people in your social network to see if there's anyone that they could recommend. If you want to cast a broader net, you can also read online reviews of practitioners you’re interested in to see how (or if) they helped others.

Writers and editors here at Yahoo Life have researched and tested dozens of online therapy platforms to determine which are the most accessible and well-rounded, as well as those that are best for specific demographics or needs. Whether you're searching for online counseling for a mood disorder like anxiety, or you're hoping to use teletherapy to strengthen your relationship, you can find our top picks for online therapy here:

How successful is online therapy?

Research has largely found that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy. Says Zuckerman: “You can get the same things from online therapy as in-person therapy, with the exception that you may miss more behavioral cues as far as body language and posture.” Still, notes Gallager, many mental health care providers offer online therapy due to its high success rates. As she puts it, “I don't know any therapist who isn't doing some virtual therapy at this point.”

Are online therapy platforms legit?

Online therapy platforms have exploded in popularity over the past few years, and there are several popular options. These offer legitimate services but, like anything, it’s important to read the fine print and see if a therapist’s credentials match what you’re looking for.

Is it better to see a therapist in person or online?

For Gallagher, it's usually a question of personal preference. “Some people prefer online therapy; others prefer the energy you get in person.” Guerra's succinct sum-up? “Ultimately, any therapy is better than no therapy. The goal is to help individuals access the mental health services they need so that they can live healthier, productive and more fulfilling lives. Whether we engage them in-person or online is irrelevant.”