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Telehealth vs. Traditional Therapy: Which Best Suits Your Needs?

by Jul 3, 2023

Not everyone is comfortable talking about their problems with a stranger in an unfamiliar environment. Not only that, many are not able to leave their homes because of family obligations, limited mobility, and other health issues.

Telehealth therapy exists to accommodate everyone’s unique life circumstances, and to give those who would otherwise not be able to receive therapy a chance to be treated.

Let’s explore the differences between telehealth and traditional in-person therapy so you can decide what’s right for you.

Telehealth Therapy

Telehealth is medical care that can be accessed remotely via a phone or internet connection. 

This mode of therapy boosted in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, with its most popular form being video conferencing therapy, in addition to phone, text, chat, or email therapy.

Despite its current popularity, telehealth is not a new phenomenon. Telepsychology actually got its start in the 1960s, with psychologists giving long-distance mental health treatments to remote populations via phone calls. Sigmund Freud even reported providing care to patients with written letters.

As far as the effectiveness of telehealth therapy, the research is definitive. Depression, anxiety, and many other conditions can be treated effectively with telehealth therapy, with one prominent figure in the field saying: 

What we’ve seen is that telehealth is essentially just as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy — and retention rates are higher.” — David Mohr, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University.

The reason that retention rates for telehealth therapy are often higher is likely its ease of use. No children need to be left with nannies, no extra commutes need to cut into someone’s day, and no other burdens need to be considered. Patients can just hop on a call and receive care.

Research has also shown high levels of patient satisfaction with remote care, further indicating that the experience is accessible and effective.

However, there are some difficulties that can come with telehealth. They include…

  • Individuals suffering from extreme conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar, or suicidal thoughts would benefit more from communicating in person or being actively overseen if they are in crisis.
  • Some aspects of nonverbal communication can be lost in telehealth, such as noticing bodily reactions or changes in posture when speaking about a certain topic that could lead to new therapeutic insights.
  • Issues with technology (bad connections, electrical issues) could get in the way of therapy sessions when they are most needed.
  • Licensing laws may prevent therapists from delivering treatment across state lines. This would vary on location.
  • Certain insurance policies may not cover telehealth.
  • Confidentiality issues may arise if the patient is not skilled in tech use, or if emails or chat threads become maliciously hacked.
  • Telehealth therapy would not benefit a person in a situation of severe abuse, or in an environment where seeking mental healthcare is stigmatized. These individuals would benefit most from privately seeking in-person help.

In general, telehealth is best for those who live far from mental health resources or are bound by busy schedules.

Traditional Therapy and the Therapeutic Relationship

The major difference between telehealth and traditional therapy is in-person contact, and as evidence shows, this doesn’t make a large impact on the effectiveness or the level of satisfaction one can gain from therapy.

However, there are advantages to speaking to a therapist in person.

For some, confiding in someone they can trust while being in the same room with them, looking them in the eye, and feeling their presence, will have a much greater impact on their progress than speaking over the phone or through their laptop. 

In this sense, natural human communication may be preferable for many. Here are the major advantages of in-person therapy:

  • A comforting, neutral environment that can serve as a break from your current life circumstances.
  • Face-to-face communication often allows for more nuanced conversations and the recognition of non-verbal communication.
  • Intensive support for those that need regular psychological interventions.

The connection between therapist and patient is a unique type of relationship that is unlike friendship, romance, or a professional partnership. 

But it is nonetheless a relationship, and in relationships, trust and a sense of collaborative effort are key. Regardless of modality, the quality of this relationship must come first.

This is what you can expect in a productive therapeutic relationship:

  • They actively monitor your goals and give you a clear indication of when you have achieved them.
  • They do not judge your life choices. They instead explore how and why you make your decisions.
  • They do not tell you to place blame on the people in your life (friends, family members, partners).
  • They make you feel safe, heard, and acknowledged.
  • They do not push their own spiritual, religious, or political beliefs onto you.
  • They do not speak or interact with you in ways that make you feel violated or uncomfortable.
  • They encourage you. They remind you of your strengths and what you’re capable of. They remind you that forgiveness is possible. They are grounded in hope and positive thinking, no matter what issues you might be dealing with.

Without these essential elements, it does not matter if you choose telehealth or in-person therapy. You feel safe enough to be vulnerable with your therapist will always be most important.

It’s Your Path

Any attempt to address your mental health is a noble one, and doing so could be the most important decision you ever make.

For certain periods, you may prefer in-person therapy. Other times, telehealth may work better as you make your life changes.

Also, if you form a great relationship with your therapist, your moving away does not have to bring it to an end. You can still receive treatment from the same therapist you’ve formed a relationship with through telehealth.

Your path is your own, and you should always do what works best for you at whatever stage of life.