ConsumerWatch: More Therapists Treating Clients Online

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – A growing number of Americans are confiding their problems to mental health professionals they’re meeting and seeing online. But, experts warn there are risks to dealing with a therapist who you might never actually meet face-to-face.

Paul Silverman, a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco, has been seeing clients online for three years now. He estimates about 25% of his practice is conducted via SKYPE.

“I let people know this is a way of getting my help, and if it’s going to work for them, then I’m available for it,” Silverman said.

It’s estimated more than 600,000 mental health professionals are now seeing at least some clients on-line. Tens of thousands are available at a moment’s notice for instant sessions at sites like Breakthrough.com and LivePerson.com. Fees range from $50 to upwards of $300 per session.

Proponents say an on-line session can be more revealing than one conducted face-to-face.

“The person is at home. They’re in their space. Sometimes it leads to them being ‘more’ of themselves than they would otherwise,” said Silverman.

John Perez, a psychologist who teaches at University of San Francisco said on-line sessions open up a new world of options to people in distress.

“You can reach a wider population of people who have mental health needs,” Perez told ConsumerWatch.

Perez also believes it’s more effective for some types of therapy than others. For example, Perez said it’s not suitable for an individual who is severely depressed.

“If you have a very high risk client, it would be easier to pick up cues if you’re in the room with them,” he said.

He also advocates combining on-line sessions with face-to-face ones.

Another concern for potential clients is credentials. Experts in telemedicine say it’s critical that any therapist offering services be licensed in the state in which the client resides. 

Don’t expect your insurer to rush in to pay for your on-line sessions. Marlene Maheu, executive director of the TeleMental Health Institute said insurers will only foot the bill if the therapy is part of treatment plan that’s been approved by a doctor or your insurer, and if the provider has been approved by your network.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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