Digital therapy, what is it and does it work?

By Camay Abraham

Published May 6, 2019 at 09:27 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

As Freud’s couch has moved from the therapist’s office to the internet, various forms of digital therapy have been on the rise, sparking the question: does it really work? To commemorate Mental Health Awareness month rolling into May, it’s time to explore what digital therapy is, and why it has gained popularity.

Unlike teletherapy, where a patient communicates with a therapist via text message, phone, email or video-call, digital therapy focuses on therapy-based online platforms such as Instagram, podcasts, and YouTube. A one-sided form of counselling that has garnered audiences, but is it helpful or just another feeble attempt at getting on the mental health trend?

Unlike meditation, self-care, or motivational quotes, therapy is framed as a method of self-reflection based on professional medical expertise. Through therapy, one can work on personal issues such as low self-esteem, life transitions, or getting over a breakup. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy which theorises that the way we think or feel about something correlates with how we behave or approach something. So if you change your way of thinking or feeling about something, your behaviour will change. CBT is a structured short-term treatment, usually ranging from five to twenty sessions, where a patient can talk about their feelings with a therapist. Although this form of therapy may not have a consistent success rate, it can help to address specific problems the patient wants to focus on. Mental health problems addressed can range from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, phobias, drug abuse, to personality disorders.

Various media and academic studies state that digital therapy can’t replace human-connected therapy, but why not? As therapy is a form of self-reflection, utilising one-sided or human-distant digital therapy can be beneficial. Following a therapy-based Instagram account or listening to a podcast can be helpful if you want guidance for mild issues. It can also cut out commuting to a therapist’s office. It is free if you don’t have a budget to see a therapist and you can bypass the anxiety of finding a therapist you have chemistry or rapport with. When a real therapist is taken out of the equation, you can be devoid of being influenced by a therapist’s own biases and objectively reflect and cope with your own issues. Digital identity construction theory posits that you can reveal more of your true self through your online persona compared to in real life. This is because as the internet is anonymous, there are no face-to-face repercussions of truly being yourself compared to in the physical world. That sort of anonymity could be beneficial if you need help but have trouble opening up.

With most medical treatments, if something goes wrong, patients are more likely to sue the medical practitioner like a doctor or surgeon. But when it comes to behavioural therapy, patients are less likely to sue the practitioner. If mental illness becomes more severe, the severity is correlated with the patient’s mental illness more than the skill set of the practitioner. So therapy administered online could make therapists less accountable if a patient doesn’t get better. There is no liability for therapists if viewers become worse after following their Instagram account or subscribe to their podcast.

Theoretically, providing an open-access platform could help people, albeit in small steps. Even if you weren’t looking for it, stumbling upon it can support unexpectedly and providing help on the internet helps people who aren’t able to get it from other outlets. Following slews of therapy Instagram accounts or bingeing on podcasts may not cure you of your traumas, but it can be a baby step in the right direction to recovery and bettering your mental health.

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