Workplace Wellbeing

Online Mental Health Counseling: A Guide to Finding the Care You Need

Many therapists today offer online appointments. Find out what the benefits of virtual therapy are, and learn how to select a therapist for online sessions.

Written by
photo authr
Spring Health
Clinically reviewed by
photo authr
Couples therapist taking a call virtually with a young couple

Jump to section

    When Sigmund Freud pioneered “the talking cure” in the 1890s, he likely never imagined that in the future his method would be conducted online. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teletherapy is increasingly the preferred medium for mental health counseling between patients and therapists. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the last week of March 2020, telehealth visits increased by 154% when compared to the same timeframe in 2019.

    Like many of the recent changes in our lives, the idea of teletherapy can seem strange at first. What are its benefits, and how can you determine what type of session will work best for you and your team members?

    What is online mental health counseling?

    Before we discuss how to find the best teletherapy, it’s important to review what therapy and counseling in general are designed to do. Sigmund Freud began his studies into psychotherapy in an attempt to help people heal themselves mentally. This was something of a radical notion in 19th century Vienna, as many European doctors believed that illness could be treated only in the body, not in the mind. However, in the intervening century talk therapy has become globally accepted as a fundamental part of mental wellness and healing.

    Mental health counseling is designed to help treat numerous conditions and symptoms, from depression to anxiety to psychotic disorders. It can be used on its own or in combination with medication and other clinical treatments. By asking patients questions and listening carefully to their responses, trained psychologists, therapists, and counselors are able to help patients discontinue harmful thought patterns or behaviors. Much in the way that a plaster cast helps mend a broken bone, mental health counseling can create a supportive and healing mental environment.

    And much as a plaster cast is custom-fitted to the part of the body that needs healing, mental health counseling takes different forms depending on the condition it is helping to treat. For patients suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety, mental health counseling not only helps them break free of potentially harmful thought patterns, but can also help them feel less alone.

    In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent need for physical and social distance has made it quite common for people who have never consulted a therapist or counselor before to reach out and request their services. Luckily, many therapists now offer online appointments.

    Up until the invention of the telephone, most mental health patient visits took place in person in a doctor’s office. Starting in the 1960s, some therapists began to conduct their sessions with patients over the phone, a practice that grew in popularity in the 1990s with the introduction of the internet. Roughly 100 telehealth networks were in existence by 1999, and in 2020 policy changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic largely eliminated the remaining logistical and social stigma barriers to teletherapy.

    Types of mental health counseling providers

    For HR professionals and those who are new to (tele)therapy, it’s important to know a few crucial details about the practice. Whether they are practicing online or in an office, there are three types of people who typically provide therapy and counseling: psychologists, therapists, and counselors. While these labels may sound interchangeable, each title requires a different degree of study and certification.

    Psychologists, therapists, and counselors all require a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field in order to begin working professionally. However, while counselors in certain fields such as substance abuse or behavioral disorder treatment may be able to open their doors to prospective patients with only a bachelor’s degree, therapists traditionally must also earn a master’s degree.

    Career, school, and rehabilitation counselors must possess a master’s degree in their specific field as well as secure a license to practice. This license can be earned by practicing for a supervised set number of hours (usually 2,000 to 4,000 hours) in the clinical realm and then passing the region or state’s licensing test.

    Similarly, therapists must not only attain a master’s degree in their specific field but also be licensed to practice by completing a set number of supervised clinical hours. As we touched on above, there are a multitude of therapists with specialities in different fields, from cognitive-behavioral therapists to mindfulness-based therapists to psychotherapists (among many others). The type of therapist you seek is very much based on your particular condition.

    Psychologists, meanwhile, usually attain the highest educational degree in their field, which traditionally takes the form of either a Ph.D. in psychology or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). A Psy.D. tends to be based on clinical work, while a Ph.D. is usually earned after the completion of a researched dissertation. While psychologists can also be practicing therapists, they possess enough education to qualify for other careers, including teaching and consulting.

    Understanding the typical level of education, certification, and licensure for each type of mental health professional will ultimately help you choose the right doctor for your needs. However, it’s also important to get a more specific sense of how virtual therapy will benefit you.

    The benefits of virtual therapy

    Whether you’ve been seeing a therapist for years or are just seeking one for the first time, virtual therapy is one of the most convenient and safe forms available. Instead of having to commute through a rainstorm from your home to the therapist’s place of business, spend money on public transit or parking fees, and then have to wait to be welcomed into the office, virtual therapy happens on your schedule in the comfort of your own home.

    While at first you may miss the face-to-face nature of in-person therapy, many health plans do allow their patients to transition from online to in-person therapy and back again.

    Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of online scheduling software, it’s also incredibly easy to book appointments and set automatic reminders for yourself. In some cases, therapists allow you to book your own appointment via their website, where you are given your choice of available time slots. Better yet, virtual therapy can begin almost instantly, depending on the availability of the provider. In general, all you need is a good internet connection and a device, such as a desktop computer or smartphone, that allows you to send and receive a live video stream.

    For those who wish to minimize their exposure to potential viruses or illnesses, virtual therapy is peerless in terms of safety. Some patients may actually benefit more from being surrounded by comforting objects in their own home as opposed to the potentially uncomfortable furniture or jarring decor of a therapist’s office. Better yet, if the therapist and the patient decide they are not perfectly suited to each other, finding another doctor is a matter of only a few clicks.

    While virtual therapy is incredibly convenient, it also provides an essential forum for finding solutions to problems. In our lives, it’s common for us to try and push aside our emotional or mental concerns believing that they are either not important or can be dealt with at some imaginary later date. Unfortunately, not dealing with our needs doesn’t make them go away. It tends only to compound the problem.

    With dedicated virtual therapy, you can receive much needed support and counseling in a format that is available wherever you happen to be. Depending on your specific condition, it’s easy to schedule therapy for as many sessions as you need it, whether that’s once a month or several times during the week. The true test of personal strength is knowing when to ask for help.

    Finding a therapist, virtually

    Now that you understand the history of mental health counseling and the benefits of virtual therapy, it’s time to tackle the most important aspect of all: finding the right therapist for you.

    This may sound like a simple matter, but finding the right therapist is a bit like finding an excellent friend. For the therapy to have the best results, it’s important that you and your therapist understand and relate to each other. While your healthcare provider or health plan will assemble a list of specialists for you, spending a little time studying each therapist’s qualifications will save you a lot of time later.  

    Of course, much as we often meet wonderful new friends based on the recommendations of our existing friendships, sometimes the perfect therapist may be recommended to you by a colleague or friend who knows you well and can arrange an introduction. Whether or not you choose to select a therapist from your provider or request to start seeing one based on a trusted recommendation through your health plan, it’s important to keep all the following advice in mind.

    As we mentioned above, therapists should have a master’s degree in their particular speciality and be licensed to practice in the physical state or region in which they practice. However, it’s best if you and your therapist share other commonalities, such as being able to fluently speak the same language. While it’s certainly possible to engage in therapy with someone who doesn’t fluently speak the same language as you do, linguistic misunderstandings can unnecessarily slow down your progress.

    Sharing a similar background, or at least finding a therapist who is versed in your particular culture, is also vital. Again, while therapists and patients can certainly come from different walks of life, when discussing certain matters that are rooted in specific social or cultural expectations or experiences, it’s enormously helpful if the therapist already understands those specific expectations or experiences.

    The truth is speed and accessibility are important. Therapy can be a multi-year process as the patient and the therapist thoroughly root out traumas and practice healing. Any unnecessary obstacles, such as a poor linguistic or cultural connection, should be avoided.

    Crucially, the therapist should be able to see the patient within a matter of hours or days, not weeks. Therapists who are unable to consult with a new patient for 20 days or more are wasting your time. Depending on your mental health condition, the sooner you can begin getting treatment, the better. Delaying treatment can negatively affect your overall health.

    Obviously, you should also verify that the therapist is equipped to treat you virtually through software that you both share or can access. Make sure that your technical requirements match up, and that you have the right device to enable your online sessions.

    Once you’ve satisfied these requirements and scheduled your consultation interview, be prepared to ask the therapist several questions about the specifics of your therapy. Questions such as “What kind of therapy or treatment do you think will help me?” and “How does this treatment work?” will tell you a tremendous amount about how the therapist is approaching your condition.

    While no therapist is clairvoyant, a good therapist will be able to give you a solid sense of what you can expect from your treatment. A therapist who is exceptionally vague or is unable to tell you the theory behind the proposed treatment is probably not going to be a good fit for you.

    Also, don’t be afraid to ask how much the sessions will cost, and what contingency scenarios are in place if the treatment does not go as expected and you don’t start feeling better. Again, an experienced therapist will be able to answer these questions without hesitation.  

    Whether you or an employee needs a mindfulness session, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or another type of treatment, Spring Health is proud to offer our members a diverse provider network of highly qualified therapists and counselors. Our members are able to meet with a care provider within 1.1 days on average.

    About the Author
    photo authr
    Spring Health

    Spring Health is a comprehensive mental health solution for employers and health plans. Unlike any other solution, we use clinically validated technology called Precision Mental Healthcare to pinpoint and deliver exactly what will work for each person—whether that’s meditation, coaching, therapy, medication, and beyond. Today, Spring Health supports over 4,500 organizations, from startups to multinational Fortune 500 corporations, and is a preferred mental health provider to companies like General Mills, Bain, and DocuSign.

    About the clinical reviewer
    photo authr

    Stay connected to the latest in mental health!

    Our newsletter delivers expert insights, personal stories, and practical strategies straight to your inbox. Join us to better support your team’s mental health.