Online Counselling and Online Counsellors
What is online counselling, and the issues to consider when finding an online counsellor.
A definition of online counselling
Online counselling is a therapeutic relationship between you and a counsellor carried out online via email.
Online counselling initially aims to help you address and make sense of the problems you are experiencing. This often involves identifying how you think about yourself and others, the experiences which formed these thoughts, and the impact of these thoughts on your life.
Online counselling then aims to help you identify your own choices for change, provide you with support during the process of change, and reach some resolution.
Online counselling is confidential, non-judgemental and based on trust. These qualities are intended to help you write openly about what troubles you. Your online counsellor will then be able to closely read your words, think carefully about what you write, and send an email response to you based on their training and experience.
"People have always found comfort and connection in writing letters and keeping journals......Emailing and the Internet are a modern form of this. Quietly gathering ones feelings into written communications allows individuals the opportunity to bind their anxiety and gain some distance and perspective from their problems. Email therapy may be considered a sort of 'talking journal' where the individual can share his or her thoughts with an empathic other." (Chechele, P.J. Stofle, G. 2003:39).
How online counselling differs from visiting a counsellor
Online counselling is different to face to face counselling. In online counselling, there is none of the eye contact and visual cues associated with face to face counselling. So it is important that you realise there may occasionally be miscommunications, and be able to work them through if they occur in order to clarify meaning.
Whilst face to face counselling sessions take place at a mutually agreed time and place, online email exchanges occur at any time of the day from any computer with a connection to the internet. These alternating email exchanges between you and your online counsellor are know as 'asynchronous communication'.
How else is online counselling different to face to face counselling?
"Clients appear more eager to address their issues and feel more in control and safer behind the keyboard of their home computer." (Chechele, P.J. and Stofle, G. 2003:42).
Online counselling is not dependent on when your counsellor is available as with face to face counselling, but when you want to share your thoughts and feelings: at these times you can write to your online counsellor. Your online counsellor can then respond to you. An online counsellor will generally aim to respond to you within 48 hours of receiving your email.
You can draft, send, receive and store your email exchanges with your online counsellor, and thus have a record of your counselling which you can reflect on.
"Clients find it particularly beneficial to be able to muse over this text at their leisure and often find deeper meaning with repeated readings." (Chechele, P.J. and Stofle, G. 2003:43).
Counsellors are trained to work within a particular theory (or theories) of the mind. Some of these theories are suited to online counselling, other theories are not suited to online counselling. For example, a theory where the emphasis is on working with your words and ideas is arguably more suited to online counselling. A theory where there is more of a reliance on seeing and observing you tends not to be appropriate for online counselling.
These theoretical considerations help counsellors determine whether or not they provide online counselling.
Ideally, you should have some experience of using computers and communicating by email:
"The client should have a basic comfort level with technology and be reasonably knowledgeable about using his or her computer. Ideally he or she will have some tolerance for computer glitches and can endure periods of silence between communications." (Chechele, P.J. and Stofle, G. 2003:40).
Online counselling and access to counselling
Online counselling can overcome barriers people experience in accessing face to face counselling, such as:
family or work commitments;
a physical illness;
a mobility problem;
a psychological problem;
feeling very vulnerable,
finding the prospect of sitting face to face with a counsellor too daunting;
the mental health stigma;
not wanting to see a local counsellor who may be 'bumped' into on the street;
living in a rural or remote location where there isn't a counsellor;
wanting to communicate with a counsellor who specializes in a particular problem but who works some distance away;
or the carbon footprint created by travelling to and from a counsellor.
Online counselling generally costs less than face to face counselling and there are no travel costs.
Online counselling and confidentiality
Online counselling is confidential. Confidentiality can be broken when someone is at risk of hurting themself or others, or when authorised by a client or the law. To maintain trust, counsellors discuss any disclosure with their clients beforehand when possible. You and your counsellor can clarify each other's responsibilities concerning confidentiality during the first online counselling email exchange.
You may also wish to ask your online counsellor about their notes, who has access to them, how securely are they stored, and if you have access to them.
Counsellors regularly attend confidential clinical supervision to discuss their client work with a more senior counsellor, in order to maintain adequate standards which protect the best interests of clients.
If you pay for online counselling by card, the details will appear on your card statement, so if you share your statement with someone else, bear this is mind.
For any online counselling email exchange, make sure you are in a quiet and private room. If you use a shared computer, ensure you log-out from any online counselling email exchange when you have finished, and don't leave your computer unattended.
An online counsellor will use encryption to protect your privacy and confidentiality and safeguard your email exchanges:
"Although 100 per cent confidentiality is not a reality in either the face-to-face world or online, there are security measures such as using secure socket layer (SSL) for the submission of sensitive material and financial information." (Chechele, P.J. and Stofle, G. 2003:44).
Choosing an online counsellor
To choose an online counsellor, ensure the online counsellor is recognized by a UK professional body which incorporates a code of ethics and practice and a complaints procedure. These bodies include the:
BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies);
BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy);
BPS (British Psychological Society);
and the UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy).
When choosing a online counsellor, you may also want to consider the counsellor's:
fee per email exchange;
time they will take on an email response to you;
duration of online counselling they offer;
level of professional training;
years of experience;
problems they work with or specialize in;
theoretical approach(es) to problems;
gender (if you have a preference);
language(s) they work in;
client group (individuals, couples, groups, families);
email exchange cancellation policy;
payment method (a secure way to pay as you will probably not see your counsellor);
availability for face to face and telephone counselling, and their understanding of working in these ways, (during online counselling, you may also want to have a face to face session - does the counsellor work near you, or you may want to have some telephone counselling).
Sometimes a counsellor will wish to see you face to face first.
If you have a history of mental illness it is advisable to see a counsellor face to face.
If you have thoughts of suicide, hurting yourself or others, please consult your GP or visit www.samaritans.org.uk.
Initial online counselling email exchange
During your initial online counselling email exchange, you can begin to write about your problems, ask any questions you may have, and discuss if ongoing online counselling would be appropriate for you and the problems you are experiencing.
The first online counselling email exchange will also be an opportunity for you to decide for yourself if you wish to work with the counsellor. If you are not sure, arrange to write to another online counsellor. Having confidence in your online counsellor is essential for the work you do together.
The first online counselling email exchange is without obligation to continue. You and your online counsellor can decide together if:
a one off email exchange is enough;
if a few email exchanges are needed for a specific problem;
if ongoing email exchanges over six weeks or more are required where you work on problems in more depth;
or if some other form of help would be more suitable.
This decision will depend on the problems you are experiencing, your commitment to the process (counselling can be painful), and your online counsellor's ability and availability.
Ongoing online counselling email exchanges
If you and your online counsellor both decide to continue, you can both agree a 'counselling contract'. A contract generally includes:
the frequency of email exchanges (normally at regular once a week intervals);
the time the counsellor will spend on each email response to you;
the time of email exchanges (normally a regular time on the same day each week);
the duration of online counselling (normally six sessions or more);
and an agreement about confidentiality.
This type of contract often helps to build a clearly defined, consistent and trusting relationship which aims to help you be open about the problems you are experiencing.
At the end of six email exchanges a review can take place to establish whether or not online counselling has helped you, how to proceed, and perhaps a renegotiation of the contract.
If further online counselling is agreed as the best way forward, a new contract can be arranged.
Not all counsellors contract or review in this way.
Online counselling - what not to expect
Online counselling is an activity you choose, not one that others choose for you. A relative, manager or teacher may suggest counselling to you, but it should be offered without any pressure or conditions.
Online counselling aims to help you make your own decisions but an online counsellor will not tell you what to do. If you want someone to tell you what to do, it would be better to read a self-help book, attend a self-help group, call a helpline, or speak to a friend or relative.
When finding an online counsellor, consider some of the above issues before starting online counselling.
by Richard Snowdon MA (Merit) MBACP (Accred) | View Profile
Chechele, P.J., Stofle, G., Individual Therapy Online via Email and Internet Relay Chat, in Anthony, K., Goss, S., (Eds.), (2003), Technology in Counselling and Psychotherapy - a Practitioner's Guide, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
www.bacp.co.uk (Accessed 14.04.08).