Since I created my online course for anxiety, I have gotten a lot of questions about online courses for mental health issues in general. I totally understand. They aren’t super common yet and people want to make sure they are doing something that is safe, effective, and cost-effective. In this post, I’d like to compare and contrast typical in-person therapy with online courses for mental health.
Are Online Courses Effective?
It seems so! Since online courses for mental health are a relatively new thing, the scientific research is not as robust as it is for things like in-person therapy. However, the research that is out there is very promising. We already know that people benefit from online therapy just about as much in-person therapy for a variety of issues (Carlbring & Andersson have done tons of research on this). Beevers and colleagues also did a study in 2017 looking at the effectiveness of an online course for depression called Deprexis. They found that people in the treatment group reported significantly less symptoms of depression and had 12 times greater chance of experiencing at least 50% improvement in symptoms compared to the control group. That’s pretty amazing! It also appears that there is little difference between self-guided and therapist-guided online interventions (Dear et al., 2018).
So while there aren’t enough data to directly compare online approaches to mental health to an equivalent in-person program, we know that they CAN provide reduction in symptoms and provide positive outcomes for issues ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol abuse and erectile dysfunction. Each person will have an approach that works best for their particular personality and mental health issues, but if you are looking for relief from symptoms in a way that doesn’t require going into an office, the research suggests online courses are a good option.
Are Online Courses Safe?
The short answer is yes, but it depends. First off, just like any resource regarding mental health, you want to make sure that you are getting your information from a reputable source. I have definitely seen people who have zero qualification to be providing information about anxiety or depression trying to sell online courses based on their own experience. As long as they are making it clear that they are not providing a professional mental health service, they are allowed to do this. But if you put all of your eggs into that basket, you may be disappointed or in a bad spot when you find out that they don’t actually know what the heck they are talking about. Courses that are created by licensed psychologists like myself or are put out by established healthcare organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health are going to be your best bet.
It’s also worth noting that online courses would not be an appropriate intervention for people that are in crisis. If someone’s symptoms are at a level where they might be at risk of harming themselves or someone else, an online course would not be the appropriate level of care. In my course, I try to be clear about this at the outset and provide people with emergency resources (and refunds) if they find that they actually need a higher level of care than my course provides. Other online mental health courses take a similar approach.
For people that are not in crisis and buy their online course from a reputable source, they are definitely safe! Really it’s no different than working your way through a physical workbook for the given mental health issue that you struggle with. You are gaining insight and knowledge into your issues and learning some strategies and techniques for coping. That’s always a good idea.
There are also those people that fall into what we call the “treatment gap”. These are people that are actively struggling with mental health issues but have not yet received treatment due to various factors and limitations. Maybe the person is unable to find resources in their area. Maybe they are too scared to call and walk into a therapist’s office. Maybe there is too much stigma in their family or culture to actually engage in mental health treatment. Maybe they have physical limitations that make leaving the house very difficult. For these people, online courses may be even safer than in-person therapy because at least they are getting some form of help. Online courses are not intended as a professional medical treatment. But if someone is able to transition from getting no help at all to working through self-help materials in the form of an online course, that is progress that might help someone stay afloat. I have had several people tell me that the online course led them to actually contact someone for individual therapy.
What Are the Downsides of Online Courses?
As with any good thing, there are some downsides to consider when looking at online mental health courses rather than therapy. First off, online course require self-motivation. When you have weekly therapy, it’s a built in check in that helps to motivate you to follow through with the work between sessions. Various online courses use tools like groups or one-on-one chats to help people adhere to the lessons. If you have trouble motivating yourself to follow through with the online lessons, research indicates that your benefit may be limited (Krusche, Dymond, Murphy & Crane, 2018).
At this point in time, insurance often will not cover online mental health courses. The exception to this is that many insurance companies are beginning to create their own online content that is made available for free to their members online. This is something that I believe will continue to grow as the efficacy of online courses continues to become clear.
There is also the irreplaceable feeling that you get from sitting directly in front of another human and allowing yourself to access emotions. Individual therapy can be incredibly powerful and you may not get that same sort of satisfaction from an online intervention. It also doesn’t force you to get out of the house in the same way that a standing in-person appointment with a therapist does.
Are Online Classes Affordable?
Generally yes! It is difficult to speak in generalities, since someone can charge whatever they want for an online course, but from what I have seen the cost efficiency is actually better than in-person therapy. If you were to come see a licensed psychologist like me for in-person therapy and pay out of pocket, you are looking at between $150 and $250 per session (can be more in some specialties). When you consider that the course of therapy typically takes at least a few months, you are looking at upwards of $6000. This is not a knock against therapy. I do therapy myself and it’s well worth the investment, given the effectiveness of the treatment. However, sometimes people simply don’t have that money. Compare that to my online course that I sell for $300. That gets you 10-weeks of content that would take months of therapy to get through. By that metric, online courses can be much more affordable than therapy. The other monetary factor to consider with online courses is that if you turn out to not enjoy or not benefit from an online course, you can simply get a refund. That option is rarely available for in-person therapy or group classes.
So Who Are Online Courses Best For?
Online mental health courses are best for people that are not in active crisis and are motivated to DO something about their symptoms. People who have barriers to getting regular treatment due to cost, location, stigma, or culture may find that online courses are an easier first-line attempt to improve their mental health. Although I never pushed it out to professional journals, my dissertation research suggested that people who have more negative attitudes toward receiving help seem to prefer online approaches (Duff, 2015). Online courses are also a great option for people that are already in therapy and would like to use a sort of “virtual workbook” to maximize their progress.
What is Your Online Course?
I’m so glad you asked! My online course is called Kick Anxiety’s Ass. It’s something that I developed after I got loads of positive feedback from my first book about anxiety telling me that the content was great but they wanted more detail. In the online course, we dive deep into the information and techniques that you need to start taking your life back from anxiety. I based the content on my experience and education as a licensed clinical psychologist and pull from established therapeutic techniques. My hope is to provide content that makes sense to real people and helps to overcome some of the normal barriers associated with face-to-face treatment.