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Mental health professionals frequently refer to any form of therapy delivered through telecommunication methods as telepsychology. You’ll also find it under many different names as web therapy, teletherapy, e-therapy or online therapy. Advancements in technology have given us instant access to a therapist no matter the distance between their office and us. All we need is a laptop or a smartphone and an internet connection.

But the idea of distance communication between therapist and client is not new. Even Sigmund Freud would communicate with many of his patients through letters. This was followed by telephone sessions in the 1960s when mental health hotlines became widely available. Nowadays, psychotherapy or counselling done via phone remains popular, especially for crisis interventions such as suicide hotlines. Moreover, psychotherapists who conduct their sessions in the traditional face-to-face setting frequently use telephone calls for crisis intervention with their on-going clients.

If you’re reading this article, it could mean that you’re interested in trying online therapy, but you still want to learn more about what it is and what you should expect from your first session. Let’s explore these two topics.

What is online therapy?

As you can probably tell from the name, online therapy involves using the internet and devices such as a computer or a smartphone to provide mental health services. Depending on what platform and therapist you choose, you can opt between videoconferencing, phone conversations, real-time chat, text messages or email. Most clients combine several methods. For example, they will have one weekly session with their therapist through videoconferencing tools, they’ll communicate through messages the rest of the time, and they’ll schedule phone calls in case of a crisis.

It’s important to note that the therapists will need the same level of training and credentials as a face-to-face therapist to work with a reputable online therapy platform. There will be differences in terms of the forms of psychotherapy they specialize in such as cognitive behavioural therapy, Gestalt therapy, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, etc. These different approaches were developed to treat different mental health challenges, but there will be overlap. You will be able to browse through the database of therapists the platform is working with and read through their credentials to learn what types of treatment they specialize in.

What to expect

Once you choose a psychotherapist, similarly to face-to-face therapy, you will set an initial session to get to know each other and talk about your goals. It’s important that you think about what you want to get from this experience because your therapist only works with the goals you set for yourself; they don’t decide for you. You’ll notice that during the first session they will ask you a variation of “What are your goals?” – it can be “What brings you here?” or “Can you tell me more about the reasons you decided to try psychotherapy?”

Prior to this first session, you will most likely receive a confirmation email and a set of instructions on how to use the required software. You’ll want to make sure you understand the instructions and ask for clarification if necessary. It’s also a good idea to log in 15 or 20 minutes before the first session so you can check if your microphone and speakers are working well and make sure your internet connection is stable.

It’s also not unusual to feel a bit awkward or anxious before talking to your therapist for the first time. You don’t know them very well, but you have to that about very personal issues. It’s important that you talk about your concerns openly as it’s the therapist's job to address them and try to make you feel safe and comfortable. It also helps if you set aside a time and place so there are no distractions and you can focus.

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