The first time I met with my therapist, I didn’t travel to an office or sit in a waiting room; I fidgeted in front of my laptop and waited for a video call. I heard that familiar ring tone – one part dripping faucet, one part xylophone – and then my therapist materialized in my living room, a disembodied and wise head floating on my screen.
For years now, this has been the ritual – once a week, I wake up, stumble to my laptop and get therapized over the internet. At first, I had reservations about telling my deepest feelings to a screen: Didn’t an internet therapist sound a bit disreputable, like a dentist operating out of a van? (I’ll admit this was pure snobbery on my part and nothing more than a theatrical longing for a fancy book-lined office to visit.) But I was as adrift as a piece of airborne dryer lint at the time and thought it better to find a therapist I could take with me when I inevitably moved.
And though it felt odd at first, never meeting my therapist in person turned out to be freeing. There is something relaxed and unselfconscious about chatting over the internet – she feels less like a human being who could judge me and more like a benevolent hologram.
I suspect that this comfortable remoteness, along with the undeniable convenience factor, has something to do with the rise of online therapy. Dr. Ashley Miller, a British Columbia-based child and adolescent psychiatrist and the co-author of What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers, agrees. “Some people find it more comfortable to speak via phone, text or a screen than face to face,” she says. There is also, as she puts it, a “tremendous need” in Canada for more accessible therapy, particularly in remote areas where specialized professionals might be few and far between.
“Online therapy, if nothing else, eliminates the fear of being seen at a therapist’s office.”
Dr. Arash Zohoor, a family physician who focuses on mental health, addiction and chronic pain in Brantford, Ont., found that the resources in his practice were heavily strained. “I realized that no matter how hard I worked, I could not scale myself,” he says. “I was not able to meet the demand.” His response was to try to build a different model from the ground up; in 2015, he co-founded Inkblot, an online video-counselling solution. The platform leans on data science to match users with counsellors who complement their goals. It was, he notes, initially very popular with people who felt they would be judged for visiting a therapist’s office.
“I think people are talking about [mental health] more…but I think the stigma is still quite real,” he says. Online therapy, if nothing else, eliminates the fear of being seen at a therapist’s office.
I, a millennial who by default prefers the online version of anything, assumed that virtual therapy was geared toward my cohort. But Zohoor says that’s not the case. “We have everyone from five-year- olds to 86-year-olds using our platform,” he says. And he notes that though the virtual aspect isn’t a focal point for many clients, the internet itself is a huge element of most people’s lives, a mixed blessing par excellence. After all, one of the most depressing things about the online world is how alienating it can feel to be constantly connected but profoundly apart from the people you share the internet (and real life) with. Virtual therapy turns that dynamic on its head, using technology to foster and strengthen human connection.
Of course, nothing is perfect. There is privacy to be considered (when we spoke, Zohoor detailed Inkblot’s stringent stance on security and privacy), and while Miller is enthusiastic about online therapy, she’s clear that it has its limitations. Much of the benefit of therapy, she explains, comes from non-verbal communication, which can get diluted via a screen. And while online therapy can be slightly cheaper than the IRL version, it still adds up.
As I see it, online therapy is about options. Creating more ways to see a therapist is, quite simply, creating more ways for people to feel better. Speaking of options, Miller stresses the importance of shopping around and making sure a therapist has experience in your area of need. “I think it’s really important to be an informed consumer of psychotherapy,” she says. It’s good advice that applies to any therapeutic relationship, online or off.
Years of therapy have provided me with a few insights, one being that intense relationships like the therapist-client kind don’t necessarily suffer because of physical distance. My therapist is not only adept at decoding my dreams but also seems to exist in a dream herself; when we finish talking, she disappears not into an office but into the vast, unknowable realms of cyberspace.
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