By Liz Bernier
Steve had suspected that something was going on with his friend Peter last fall. But Peter never said anything, so Steve never said anything either.
Then Peter committed suicide.
His friends were devastated—no one had seen it coming.
“You develop friendships and you think you’ll have the rest of your life to know that person,” Steve, who only wanted his first name used, said. “Not this time.”
Peter’s story is an increasingly common one. As a male in his mid-20s, Peter belonged to two groups that are notoriously reluctant to seek help: young people and men.
Steve said that some warning signs were there, but Peter was just never willing to let his defences down.
“I knew he had issues, but he never really opened up,” he said. “Most people do keep things in.”
Despite public awareness campaigns and increasing media coverage, mental health issues still carry a stigma. It can be hard to admit you have a problem—and even harder to admit it to a stranger in a counsellor’s office, said Lawrence Murphy, a certified counsellor based in Guelph.
But for some, technology is making it a little easier.
Many licensed counsellors like Murphy and Dan Mitchell of Vancouver are taking their practices online. Murphy and Mitchell operate TherapyOnline.ca, where they offer therapy via e-mail, chat, and even video.
Online therapy has been a growing trend, providing a comfort zone for some who wouldn’t ordinarily seek help but like the anonymity and ease of internet counselling, Murphy said.
He said about 50 per cent of his client base is made up of people who would never have sought counselling if it hadn’t been offered online.
“Not for love nor money would they sit in a room, look another person in the eye, and talk about their heart, their family, their life. Never,” Murphy said.
“They’re not going to look somebody in the eye and say, ‘somebody had sex with me when I was a little boy, I think I’m gay, I’ve been sleeping around on my wife, I don’t like my children, what’s wrong with me?’ They’re just not going to.”
But with the anonymity factor of online counselling, some people—particularly men—feel able to open up about difficult subjects and experiences, Murphy said.
Online therapy can also provide an alternative outlet for talking about many of the difficulties young people face, including navigating their sexuality.
“You look at online groups for example and when it comes to getting self help, there are an extraordinary number of groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered individuals,” Murphy said.
“They’re tired of walking into offices and rooms and having people give them that look. And even if people are really trying to be good and trying to be decent and respectful, there’s still that sense of being stared at.”
But that sense of “being stared at” isn’t necessarily a concern for everyone who seeks counselling.
One common criticism of online counselling is that it lacks the human contact of a face-to-face interaction, and eliminates all of the non-verbal communication between the patient and therapist. And for some, this is an integral part of therapy.
Steve has been suffering with depression and mental health issues ever since Peter’s suicide, but the concept of online counselling doesn’t appeal to him. He said he would prefer a face-to-face session to an online one.
“I’d do it by Skype, because that’s still personal,” he said. “But honestly, I’d rather go into an office with a real person. Going to people in real life makes more sense than going online.”
But Mitchell believes this idea is a common misconception.
“There seems to be an assumption that you need to see the person in order for counselling to make any sense,” he said. “[But] I think that anonymity is one of the big advantages of text-based counselling.”
He said the therapists in his practice have taken great care to compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues.
“It’s obviously an issue to not be able to see people’s non-verbal [reactions],” he said. “But we’ve gone to great lengths to help counsellors learn how to express non-verbal communication through text, and to create kind of a sense of being in one another’s presence even though you’re not.”
Another tool in the toolbox
The sense of being in someone else’s presence seems to be enough for many young people who prefer online therapy despite—or perhaps because of—the lack of face-to-face interaction.
Murphy said the demand for online therapy is growing fast, especially at colleges and universities.
“I talk to people who run counselling agencies at colleges and universities all the time,” he said. “And one of the things they say is, we don’t offer online counselling, but we are forever getting e-mails from students.
“One of the things that’s happening is that they’re not even advertising that they’re willing to do online counselling, but people are e-mailing them all the time. They kind of have no choice.”
In fact, Western University just started a website this month advertising its mental health resources. While it doesn’t offer online counselling—not yet, anyway—it does offer students information, helplines, and links to more resources.
Despite its rapid growth, Murphy said that online counselling will never completely replace traditional, face-to-face therapy. Instead, he said, it should been seen as another “tool” for therapists to use.
And it’s becoming an important one.
“Is it something that it going to be prominent, is it something that’s going to last, is it something that’s going to be second nature, a given to people in 10 years?” Murphy asks. “The answer is yes. Absolutely.”