• Finding time for in person meetings with a professional may be challenging

  • Hazel Hill explains how online counselling works and how it might best fit into your busy lifestyle

  • If you are looking for a counsellor or therapist, you can find one here

Traditionally, the term ‘counselling’ generally refers to the confidential conversation between a professionally trained counsellor and a client.

This conversation usually takes place at a mutually agreed date and time. However, if you lead a busy life, work overseas or in shifts, or you're the parent/guardian of young children, then ‘face-to-face’ counselling may not be for you. Online counselling has some similarities with face-to-face counselling. You still engage in a conversation with a professional counsellor, with the intention of finding a way forward to deal with your difficulties. The dialogue with your online counsellor remains confidential, and you are free to terminate the counselling relationship at a time of your choosing. The key difference between online and face-to-face counselling is that you use modern day technology to conduct the conversation and it can be carried out at a location and time to suit you. Often it is cheaper than face-to-face counselling, as the counsellor does not have to hire a room for each session. If it's your first experience of counselling, you might feel apprehensive talking about your problem to a stranger; some people feel less ‘exposed’ if they can be counselled via technology rather than being physically present in the same room as the counsellor. One example is that of the Samaritans, which is a service for individuals that makes use of technology (in this case SMS text messaging) to provide a confidential counselling service. The adoption of technology can only be a good thing for counselling in general; it makes counselling both more accessible and more acceptable to the population, which in turn will expose more people to the beneficial effects of talking and writing therapies. However, online counselling will not suit everyone. It's not suitable for people who have suicidal feelings or clinical mental health issues.

How does online counselling work?

Online counselling can be carried out via email, video chat (such as Skype) or in a text-based online chat room.

  • Email counselling involves a series of email exchanges where the client writes about their problems or issues that concern them. The counsellor responds within 48 hours, offering support through the written word. Email counselling does not need the counsellor and the client to be available at the same time.
  • Video chat allows you to speak to your counsellor in real time. It's ideal if you prefer seeing your counsellor face-to-face and like to read facial expressions, without the hassle of meeting up at the same physical location.
  • Online chat counselling is arranged at a mutual time between the counsellor and client. You ‘meet’ virtually in a private chat room, and talk by typing questions and responses in real time. This allows you to have a private conversation with your counsellor, whilst remaining anonymous.

An example of how online chat counselling works:

Joan was a working mum whose husband often worked away. She worked until late in the evenings and the occasional Saturday. After she had put her children to bed she was left feeling tired, lonely and depressed. She felt guilty that she was failing as a mum and was under tremendous stress at work. In the evening she found herself seeking solace with a bottle of wine. Each morning she would feel moody, irritable and even more depressed. It became a vicious cycle and her life felt purposeless. Committing to traditional face-to-face counselling during the day was impossible, but Joan needed to share her feelings and find some direction in her life. Joan contacted an online counsellor and arranged instant messaging counselling. Her counsellor responded to her in an empathetic, non-judgemental, client focused way which challenged her thoughts and helped Joan develop her own coping strategies. At first Joan found it difficult to express her feelings by typing at her laptop, but once she allowed herself to write what was on her mind, the words just flowed. Joan found the writing therapeutic, enabling her inner emotions to be processed in a deeper way. Joan found comfort from the written discourse with her counsellor, and it became a way for her to vent her anger and negative thinking. With the support of her counsellor, Joan began to communicate with her inner-self and find better ways to resolve her problems.

If you decide to see an online counsellor, here is a checklist of essential things to consider:

  • Ask your counsellor to confirm that they are qualified to deliver online counselling
  • Check that your counsellor is a recognised member of a professional counselling association
  • Your counsellor uses encrypted emails, secure video links or chat rooms
  • You are able to find a quiet, private and comfortable space to have your session

Further reading

Is the future of therapy online?

Online therapy: some considerations for beginners

How does online therapy differ from in-person?

How to prepare for an online therapy session