The market for online psychotherapy has been booming for years, but do such methods really work? Some patients say it does.
Martin Schulze-Vorberg first got treatment for depression at the turn of the century, when he was 43 and lived and worked in Munich. He started to not feel well, could not get out of bed and felt in a general state of panic, so after a few weeks he sought help from a therapist.
He felt well again after three months, thanks to a combination of inpatient treatment and medication, he recalls.
In mid-2016, Schulze-Vorberg again had to grapple with depression, but his situation had changed. He was living on a small Caribbean island at the time, his medication was not helping, and he could not find a suitable therapist nearby.
"That made the situation a lot worse," he notes.
Schulze-Vorberg returned to Germany and not only underwent inpatient treatment again but also joined an experimental programme, MindDoc. He is now one of around 300 participants in the online therapy framework set up by the private Schoen Clinic, which has 23 facilities in Germany and Britain.
Since early December, this therapy platform – which requires an in-person interview to join the programme – can be found online.
Patients can seek remote treatment for depression, eating disorders or burnout, through videochats and text messages, from their own homes, says Bernhard Backes, head of MindDoc. And they are also assigned behavioural therapy exercises.
Schulze-Vorberg takes part in video sessions with his therapist from his living-room ("or from anywhere in the world", he hastens to add). He logs in on his laptop, through an encrypted connection, for his 50-minute talks with the expert.
"It feels like a normal session," he stresses. "Not at all impersonal."
The risks of a misdiagnosis are comparable to those in face-to-face therapy sessions, says Iris Hauth, an executive committee member at the German Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology.
"The main thing is for psychotherapy to be based on a careful on-site diagnosis," she notes.
Hauth mentions accessibility as the main advantage of online programmes, and she points out that the effectiveness of such therapies has already been proved by several studies.
"When the closest therapist is too far, that will simply not be feasible for most people," Hauth says.
In rural areas, online therapy can be a particularly good supplement. Patients who spend a good portion of their time abroad, like Schulze-Vorberg, can also profit from such flexibility.
MindDoc is not the first online therapy platform. Selfapy, for example, was launched two years ago. It has about 20 psychologists available on its platform and allows patients to communicate with their therapists from the comfort of their homes, via webcams and online chats.
"However, about 40% of our patients reject the video function. They would rather use the phone and remain anonymous," says Selfapy co-founder Farina Schurzfeld.
The German Union of Psychotherapists is wary of online approaches, however, among others for lack a proper legal framework. Online therapy may sometimes be a useful supplement, but it can never replace on-site sessions, the association stresses. — dpa