Free Online Therapy: Is it Really Free? Paid vs. Free Online Therapy

September 7, 2021

Americans are relying on the internet in more ways than ever before for their health and wellness. Right behind email use, and product research – looking up information about health issues is one of the top three reasons people use the internet these days. 

Some of the top health-related searches include look up symptoms of disease and illness, and topics like depression, anxiety or stress. 

With so much free health advice online, it’s no surprise that increasingly people are searching for free online counseling, therapy chat, and how to talk to a therapist online. 

Since 2004, the number of people searching for mental health related topics, on a monthly basis, has doubled according to Google Trends. Unsurprisingly, if people demand it, the internet will provide it. There is now a booming business of service providers creating free online mental health support — but is free online therapy worth it? Does free online counseling, provided through chat and text, deliver the same results as paid versions?

We are going to dig into the real (and critical) differences between paid counseling and free online counseling. And spoiler alert, if it sounds too good to be true – it likely is too good to be true. 

In this guide to free versus paid online therapy, you’ll get facts on:

  • What is Online Counseling (A Definition)
  • What Mental Health Concerns in Online Therapy Helpful for?
  • Is Online or Offline Therapy More Effective?
  • The Difference Between Paid vs. Free Online Therapy
  • A Guide to the Many Types of Free Online Therapy
  • How Much Does Face-to-Face Counseling Cost?
  • How Much Does Online Counseling Cost?
  • What Isn’t Most Therapy Free?
  • What are the Downsides of Free Online Therapy?
  • Where to Find Free or Affordable Therapy?
  • …. And finally, is free online therapy worth it?

What is Online Counseling?

Online counseling is a therapy session moved from an office space, into the online space. It’s provided through chat boxes, text options, video technologies and even via email. The goals of in-person versus online therapy are essentially the same, but the format is different. 

Whether you are sitting on a chaise lounge or Skyping from your bedroom – the counseling session will feel very much the same. Just like their offline peers, online therapists work with the same approaches, tools, and techniques, only over the internet or by phone.

Online therapy may come in a variety of formats including:

  • Phone calls
  • Internet-based phone calls
  • Real-time text messaging
  • Video chat
  • Real-time online chat 
  • Email

By accessing therapy online, you benefit from the ease of scheduling, lower costs, and for certain people, less stress from a face-to-face meeting. 

Traditional therapy, meaning face-to-face sessions, tends to all follow a similar format. The first step is to set up an appointment, the second is to attend, and, in some cases, you may even receive a bit of homework. While the in-session approaches might differ from therapist to therapist, the structure is largely the same.

Online options vary significantly, depending on cost (paid versus free), technological platform (mobile app, video chat, etc) and end-goal (crisis support, seeking emotional balance, and more).

Some therapists provide online counseling through their own practices, using Skype or another video chat service. Some online therapy is structured using an on-demand approach, including text therapy, and crisis support. Still, some providers work on a subscription model, giving you access to a constant text or video support on a monthly basis. With the online model, there are no restrictions on structure or form of delivery.

What Mental Health Concerns in Online Therapy Helpful for?

Lonely Girl Using a Digital Tablet for Therapy

Is online therapy the right choice? While there is a growing body of literature supporting the effectiveness of online therapeutic approaches, the evidence is still limited in scope. 

As per a 2015 publication in the World Journal of Psychiatry, “A large body of accumulated evidence indicates that videoconferencing-based telepsychiatric assessments are reliable.” The authors of the critical evaluation went on to state that, “clinical outcomes of telepsychiatric interventions are comparable to conventional treatment among diverse patient populations, ages and diagnostic groups, and on a wide range of measures.” 

As the world of online therapy continues to expand, and more people rely on it, our understanding of the therapeutic value will grow. Until now, most experts feel online therapy is valuable for some people, but is not always suitable for more serious mental health concerns. 

If you are experiencing the signs of schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, major depression, addiction, or other serious mental health concerns, you may need more therapeutic intervention that what an online format can provide. 

As Lynn Bufka, PhD, an associate executive director for practice research and policy at American Psychological Association (APA) explained in a opinion piece, “If you’re using an online therapy platform and you ask someone if they’re suicidal and they say no, is that it?” She details how in serious clinical issues come up during a session, it’s challenging to manage without ongoing face-to-face interaction.

Text-based therapy is best suited to helping people through challenging life-circumstances and guiding people on a personal journey to happiness. It’s helpful for building confidence, calming the mind, and learning emotional balance. More serious mental health concerns should always go through a primary healthcare practitioner, who is well versed in guiding patients towards the immediate assistance they may need.

Is Online or Offline Therapy More Effective?

As the appeal of online counseling has grown over the last few decades, many have questioned the effectiveness of the approach. As you’ve quietly Googled the phrases “Free online counseling” or “Text therapy options,” during your lunch break at work or late at night, perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts.

Are high-tech forms of therapeutic communication as valuable as conventional forms? Do they give the client the connection and support they need to overcome mental health concerns. 

Thankfully, researchers are exploring the success rates of online versus offline therapy. Despite the assumptions you might have held about counseling via the internet, all the data points to equal if not better results for certain mental health concerns. Again, more serious issues like depression or addiction may require more intense (read: in-person and clinical-based) interventions. 

But with more people turning to online therapy solutions, we are learning more about their value. A study from Germany, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, compared results for online counseling versus in-person for the treatment of depression. Immediately after the sessions, the group receiving online counseling experienced a 50 percent drop in rates of depression, versus 53 in the offline group. In a follow up a few months later, the online group’s rate of depression dropped 57 percent.

In this study, researchers hypothesize that the online group continued to see improvements, even months after the initial therapy, because they could reflect and review their historic communications. Re-reading old material and old chats is not possible with in-person therapy.

Other studies have demonstrated similar results. People accessing therapy through online-sources tend to rate their experiences on par (or better) than people who choose the more conventional on-the-couch route. 

Ryan Baird Thompson, from Portland State University, reviewed the literature on teletherapy in his 2016 thesis. Using a three-pronged approach of investigation, including outcome, process, and self-report evidence, Thompson concluded “Overall, the outcome literature appears to support the feasibility of online therapy. Teletherapy appears to produce therapeutic changes in a client in a similar manner to traditional therapy.” 

Thompson discovered that patients “gave  overwhelmingly positive assessments of online therapy.” In his discussion, based on three strategies of his investigation, he concludes “online therapy appears to be clinically efficacious.” While the current body of research is limited in survey size, and study-scope, the preliminary work points to positive outcomes for the participants.

From the 2015 review mentioned earlier, “Usefulness of telepsychiatry: A critical evaluation of videoconferencing-based approaches,” the early evidence seems extremely supportive of online therapy.

Subho Chakrabarti, the author, determined, “Research-data from the initial studies comparing clinical outcomes between videoconferencing-based interventions and conventional treatment found both conditions to be equivalent across diverse populations, across all age groups, and on a wide range of outcome measure.”

Importantly, there were few randomized control trials, but again, online therapy has only recently become popular. It may be several years before well-controlled studies, and long-term follow-ups are available. 

The Difference Between Paid vs. Free Online Therapy

With online therapy now defined, and the arguments in support of high-tech mobile solutions for therapeutic outcomes – is all online therapy the same? Do free options provide the same value and mental health returns as paid-for options?

Short answer: No.

There are significant differences between therapy performed by therapists, and free services now prolifically advertised online. 

What is often the case when you Google “free online therapy,” the search sends you to a for-profit organization, offering one of three options: support chats, monitored forums, and trial sessions.

As you’ll see below, while these options are free, they aren’t supported by real-life therapists. The person doling out free advice on the other end of the platform has limited formal training and may fall simply be another supportive user, not a professional. 

Free services tend to be limited in scope, and maybe only offered on a trial basis. They may offer a space to talk, and a supportive community to connect with, but free services don’t offer much more.  

For anyone looking for quick advice or a place to connect with others, these might make perfect options. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Online therapy may be one of the clearest representations of this old adage.

Free Online Therapy Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Community Driven
  • Connection With Others
  • Self-Directed
  • Accessible

Free Online Therapy Cons:

  • Unproven Advice
  • Peer-Mediated
  • Not Backed by Therapists
  • Not Always Private or Confidential
  • Ethical Concerns.
  • Restricted to Chat Rooms and Forums

Paid Online Therapy Pros:

  • Affordable (compared to in-person)
  • Delivered in a Variety of Mobile Formats
  • Schedule to Suit Your Needs
  • Private and Confidential
  • Supported or Delivered by Therapists
  • Based on Established Therapeutic Approaches

Paid Online Therapy Cons:

  • May not be suitable for all mental health concerns
  • Requires a Level of Technological Know-How
  • Learning Curve 

A quick caveat here – some places offer free therapy for those who cannot afford it. These services are often in short support and provided locally. Commonly it’s offered to communities in need (women, LGBTQ, minorities, etc.). Usually, there are services offered via your health insurance, your university, or a local charity. 

Unlike the “free online therapy” options described above, these free sessions are with a therapist or counselor. If you would like to explore affordable in-person options, ask your local community services networks, employee assistance program or your school’s student office to find out what options are available locally.

A Guide to the Types of Free Online Therapy

At the time of writing, there were no service providers allowing people to text a therapist for free. Free online counseling generally falls within certain parameters, and generally, none of them include a real-life therapist sitting at the other end.

Free online therapy tends to mean peer-mediated options including: 

  • Peer-to-Peer Support Services
  • Q&A Forums
  • Free Therapist Monitored Forums

These services are well-meaning and accessible but limited in scope. They offer participants a place to share experiences and give advice, but they not based on proven therapeutic practices. If you want to speak with a therapist about an ongoing mental health concern, these are likely not valuable. 

Connection and community can be very beneficial, especially for those feeling isolated and alone, but they are best used in conjunction with online or in-person therapy sessions – not as a stand-alone solution.

In 2014 writer Laura Barcella compared notes from her experiences with three free online therapy providers. In her piece for Elle,” I Spilled My Guts To Strangers On Free Internet-Therapy Sites” Barcella reviewed the pros and cons of each free format, based on her real-life quest for balance.

According to Barcella, she has personally relied on in-person talk therapy for decades. So her experiences with free online therapy paint a real-life picture of what you can expect for free, and their value in comparison to counseling performed by a licensed professional. 

Her insight is valuable for anyone curious about the free-therapy format, and most importantly it’s value. You may have already noticed in your quest to better understand free-online therapy that the top returns provided by Google or Youtube seem contrived. 

Many online-therapy platforms have relied on paid-for reviews from influencers of affiliate links to boost their products. Barcella’s piece for Elle is one of the few unbiased reviews to date. 

Peer-to-Peer Support Services

Support chat rooms are a 24 hour, seven days a week service offering a connection to others in the same space as you. Users connect anonymously, either in a therapist monitored or user-monitored room to discuss their issues and provide support to one another.

It’s a place to commiserate, and share experiences, but there is usually no one-on-one communication with a therapist.

In Barcella’s experience using one free chat service, she was confronted with a warning before signing on, “Venting to a stranger can be incredibly dangerous if you are at a very mentally sensitive state. By entering the chat, you understand that [omitted ]is not liable for any advice given.”

For her, this warning spoke volumes about the pitfalls of the service. It’s very clearly not a replacement for real online therapy sessions, with a real experienced mental healthcare professional sitting on the end of the wires.

Q&A Forums

Forums, like Quora, are spaces to ask questions and receive a personalized response. While the Q&A format can return helpful advice, the response is never guaranteed. Q&A forums are only as valuable as the people responding, and most do not require any experience, degrees, or education on the topic in question. 

In 2014, Barcella didn’t review Q&A Forums, but the pitfalls of the format are clear. Asking for mental health help on an online forum may deliver advice from a therapist, advice from a peer, or even from a marketing firm trying to boost their client’s profile. 

These free-forums work best if the answers are reviewed with a grain of salt. Who is answering? What are their certifications? Do they work for a company selling counseling services? They may deliver a good brainstorming session, but they do not deliver true therapeutic value.

Free Therapist Monitored Forums

Therapist Monitored Forums forums explore topics like depression, anxiety, and other common mental health concerns. These spaces allow users to post questions and experiences and in some cases, to receive follow up advice from counselors.

Barcella received immediate responses to her inquiries —sometimes. Other times she troublingly never received any feedback whatsoever. 

As she put it after her interaction with a counselor on a forum about depression “…as our back-and-forth winds down, I feel totally underwhelmed. [….] it’s not in-depth enough to provide any real insight.”

Barcella perhaps put it best when she sums up her free online therapy experiences, “Overall, my experiences on the sites were intriguing but not mind-blowing—none of the free forums felt equipped to help me dive into real issues. They felt more like social outlets than mental health resources.”

How Much Does Face-to-Face Counseling Cost?

Traditional in-person counseling costs vary depending on the region of the world, local competition/regulation, health insurance coverage and the credentials of the counselor. Just like a club sandwich or a quart of milk will vary from one state to the next, so to will therapy. 

In most areas of the US, you can expect to see an invoice between $75 to $100 per session. Although, some therapists charge upwards of $200, which may reflect their location or their education.

Check with your health insurance for coverage, as they often cover a predetermined number of visits a year, or a percentage of each visit to a yearly maximum. Some counselors also offer sliding scale services, where the more you can afford, the more you pay. 

If neither of these is an option, ask local community resources (women’s centers, student organizations) if there are local free counseling services in your area.

How Much Does Online Counseling Cost?

You’ve got a world of options out there for online support, from free peer-supported chat rooms to videoconferencing with real-world therapists. There is a lot of variety, and as such costs vary.

What influences the costs of online therapy? There are two key drivers, including the frequency of sessions (weekly, bi-weekly, one-off), and the type of access (24/7 text messaging versus scheduled meetings). 

As an example, Chat Owl offers live, on-demand text-based therapy for $39 per week. That’s 24/7 access to an experienced therapist. Other providers which rely on different technologies are more expensive, including video or phone-based options. These are scheduled, screen-to-screen (the online equivalent of face-to-face) and are typically more expensive. 

The one consistent aspect of online counseling from certified therapists is its affordability compared to traditional in-person sessions.

You’ll quickly see that full-session online costs a fraction of the same session offline. Chat Owl is $39 for a weeks worth of unlimited support, and a single in-person talk-therapy session could dock you $200. This difference is why so many people have sought online counseling as a much more feasible option for their budget and lifestyle.

What are the Downsides of Free Online Therapy?

Woman Standing Using Ipad

The one major downside of free online therapy, whether that is a therapy chat or some other version of free only counseling, is that it’s usually not true therapy. Free therapy these days falls into several categories, most of which are not supported by a therapist. At worst these include community and peer support forums or chat rooms, question and answer forums, or at best, a therapist-monitored space.  

Online or off, true therapy is supported by clinically proven approaches. There is a real-life therapist on the other end, delivering real-time therapy. Unfortunately, the free options available today do not come with any accolades nor professional one-on-one assistance. 

While peer-support is a valuable form of connection and community, in the wrong situation it can lead to disastrous results. At the end of the day, it’s helpful and supportive advice, but it isn’t therapy.

Someone offering up free advice on an anxiety or depression form does not have a degree or experience to back up their advice. True, you may find their advice valuable, but it could also be extremely harmful. Imagine booking a session of therapy with a random stranger or coworker. Do you feel you’d get the results you need from it? 

Personalized treatment approaches, helping you flourish and thrive and overcome your emotional imbalance come from trained professionals. 

Furthermore, free online counseling chats and other free options may put your privacy at risk. Do you know how these services protect your privacy or encrypt your information? If you post on a question and answer form, who has access? Importantly, therapy should always be confidential and the service should protect your privacy rights.

What did Barcella conclude in her piece for Elle on her experiences of free online therapy? She explained, “Overall, my experiences on the sites were intriguing but not mind-blowing—none of the free forums felt equipped to help me dive into real issues.” She said it best, in her opinion, “ They felt more like social outlets than mental health resources.”

Why Isn’t Most Therapy Free?

There is a strong argument to be made that mental health is health and that health care should be a human right?

Yet, even in countries with free healthcare (like Canada), therapy remains an overwhelmingly paid-for service. Considering, mental health is a rising economic cost and burden for countries around the world, shouldn’t this be a top priority for governments? 

Unfortunately, it’s not.

100 percent free online counseling essentially does not exist, no matter where you live. In some countries it may be subsidized, in others, it’s covered by insurance. But, for most of us, we have to pay for it. Therapy, with a therapist, who works with clinically proven techniques, will always require a financial investment. 

But, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. With technological advances and a growing demographic of people comfortable with mobile technologies, online formats have made therapy much more affordable and accessible.

Instead of paying for the office space and expenditures of your therapist, you are now paying for the therapy. Thanks to chat-based, tex-based, and other platforms, therapy is coming back down to earth.

Online and mobile options bring down the costs associated with conventional therapy because they remove a significant amount of overhead for the service provider.

Instead of a therapist paying for office space, a comfy couch and a bulk order of tissues, they only need to pay for an internet connection. Without conventional office expenses, the session becomes much more budget-friendly. 

Where to Find Free or Affordable Therapy?

Thanks to the powers of the internet, affordable therapy is only a click away. For just about any budget and need, you can find a provider delivering the service you need. On-demand therapy through text, video, or chat is a way to access mental health support, without the extravagant costs of days gone by.

Even people who can afford in-person sessions are frequently turning to online options. For them, the flexibility and on-demand nature of mobile therapy or text-based apps is more valuable than face-to-face interaction.

With the preliminary research continuing to demonstrate online therapy is just as effective (if not more) than offline options – it’s only a matter of time before most of us make the switch.

Chat Owl is live text-based therapy, combining clinically proven techniques and real therapists sitting at the other end. It’s available 24/7 and connects experienced therapists to people on a journey to happiness. It’s live-chat therapy approach focuses on overcoming emotional imbalance, planning for the future, and creating peace of mind.

Whatever your schedule, an experienced therapist is there, waiting to help. Affordable at only $39 per week, it’s unlimited texted-based therapy for the cost of a meal.

If video, email or phone are more in line with your schedule and preferences, there are several other reputable services that provide these for affordable rates as well. The beauty of the internet is how it’s created space for everyone, no matter their needs.

Importantly, if you are in crisis or managing a serious mental health concern, seek immediate assistance from a crisis support service. These organizations work hard to help people in times of crisis. They are available 24/7, across the country.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, reach out to one of these many valuable organizations. You’ll speak with someone trained in managing mental health crisis, including suicide prevention, addictions, and more. A real person will help you cope with the situation at hand, and will provide resources to help in the future:

  • Emergency: 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: +1 (800) 273-8255
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: +1 (800) 799-7233
  • Family Violence Helpline: +1 (800) 996-6228
  • National Hopeline Network: +1 (800) 784-2433
  • TREVOR Crisis Hotline: +1 (866) 488-7386
  • Self-Harm Hotline: +1 (800) 366-8288
  • Planned Parenthood Hotline: +1 (800) 230-7526
  • American Association of Poison Control Centers: +1 (800) 222-1222
  • Alcoholism & Drug Dependency Hope Line: +1 (800) 622-2255
  • National Crisis Line, Anorexia and Bulimia: +1 (800) 233-4357
  • LGBTQ Hotline: +1 (888) 843-4564

Conclusion: Free Online Therapy, Is it Worth it?

If you are looking for online advice or a support network, the many forms of free pseudo-therapy online are all suitable options. There are more chat rooms, forums, and support networks out there than ever before. So if you need a friendly person to talk to, you may want to give one of these options a try.

However, finding a licensed, experienced online counselor is a much better option for long term support. If you have serious concerns about your mental health, including trauma, a diagnosis, or problems in a relationship,  you’ll want to speak with someone specialized in that field. Speaking with someone trained in that area can have positive impacts for the rest of your life, not just a short term solution.

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