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Online therapy is as effective as going in person, study finds

A cellphone shows the website of the Department of Health and Social Services
A cellphone shows the website of the Department of Health and Social Services. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

Digital therapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment, according to a new study from the University of Alberta. In the age of social-distancing, researchers say this is a promising find.

According to Chelsea Jones, the study’s lead author, the Covid-19 pandemic raised a lot of necessary questions about the importance of mental health supports – especially with the shift to online therapy options.

“Up to that point, there hadn’t been a ton of research,” she said of digital therapy versus in-person sessions.

“Does it work? Is it safe? How does this population react to the delivery of health care mental health support over video conferencing and telephone?”



Chelsea Jones, lead author of new study which found digital therapy can be as effective as in-person options. Photo: Submitted

Jones is an occupational therapist for the Canadian Armed Forces and a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine.

Jones’ study, co-authored with other mental health and military experts and published this month, examined previous research on digital and remote mental health care for veterans, military personnel, and emergency responders dealing with trauma.

It showed certain types of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapies –cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and behavioural activation treatments – were just as effective delivered digitally as in person.



And it’s not just veterans or first responders who could benefit from these findings, Jones clarified. While the research focused on this particular group, it could be applicable to the general population as well.

“Certainly, if we can increase the accessibility for some people of mental health care … that might also reduce the stigma. If they can have therapy within their home, it might be a good match for a lot of people,” she said.

The NWT has established a virtual care response to the pandemic to keep health services accessible, allowing residents to carry out appointments over the phone or through video conferencing.

The territory is also working with the federal government to develop a phone app through which residents can access mental health supports online.

However, Jones pointed out that while digital therapy can be effective for some people, “it isn’t one size fits all.”

“There are still people who are going to have trouble with connectivity, wifi, their hardware,” she said. “There are going to be kids running around in the background, dogs barking, things like that.

“It’s not going to be a fit for everybody but certainly, the research so far is looking really promising.”

Weathering the digital divide

Raymond Pidzamecky, who has worked as a therapist in northern communities for years, seconded Jones’ conclusion.



“Not everybody in the communities has the resources to participate in online counselling,” Pidzamecky said. “Not all of them have cellphones with unlimited minutes. Wifi is very expensive up here in the North.

“A lot of clients want to have that physical proximity with a counsellor. They want to be able to see the counsellor. Just as we observe our clients, they observe us. Online, that’s kind-of difficult to do.”

Jones and Pidzamecky agree the best mental health support system would combine digital and in-person treatment.

“[Before Covid-19] we thought the sky was going fall in as people work from home and actually, we’re finding that’s working out fairly well, provided they have the technology,” he said.

“I think that should be always an option that’s presented. Here’s the service. How do you prefer to access it: online or in person? Give them that choice.”

Jones added: “I think there needs to be more research and those communities need to advocate for those needs as well.

“Mental health, rehabilitation, recovery should be something everyone can access and attain. We have to make it as accessible as possible for everyone in the country.”