Feature Archive

Is Online Help Safe?

Consumer beware.

WebMD Feature

July 24, 2000 -- Eighteen months ago, Beth Steele of Houston was severely depressed. She had long suffered from bipolar disorder, but between caring for a daughter with the same illness and running her dog grooming business, she couldn't find time for therapy. Then a client suggested a solution: Why not seek therapy online?

Hundreds of licensed mental health professionals -- and some unlicensed freelancers -- are offering such services through email and online chat rooms. Even professional associations that once pooh-poohed the practice are now issuing guidelines for online therapy.

Expect the trend to grow, says Leigh Jerome, PhD, a clinical psychologist who is helping the American Psychological Association develop its online policy. "Within ten years, computers will become so embedded in our lives, we won't even think of this as telehealth," she says. "The housebound patient will be able to receive care on a regular basis. Therapy will be conducted (via email or chat rooms) with remote or extended family members located thousands of miles from each other."

Like Fire

Despite these predictions, online therapy remains controversial. Little research has been done to show its effectiveness or whom it best serves. And many in the field still worry about privacy, liability, and fraud. (To learn more about the benefits -- and dangers -- of online therapy, see Therapy From a Distance and When Cybertherapy Goes Bad)