Mental Challenges

How Digital Therapy Compares to In-Person Sessions, According to Therapists

Kara Jillian Brown

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With the creation of sites like Talkspace and Cerebral, digital therapy has slowly gained popularity. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend, with many people met with their therapists in person switching to virtual appointments. And with the ongoing pandemic, more people need access to mental health care. Digital therapy offers the chance to meet with a therapist regardless of where you live or how easily you can leave home. But when it comes to the benefits of digital therapy versus in-person therapy, how do the two compare?

Compared to in-person therapy, digital therapy "doesn't look the same. It's definitely not the same, but there's a replication there," says Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC, director of clinical content at Talkspace. "I'm not in the same room with you, but I can sort of still have that three-, four-dimensional experience because of the ways that I can talk to you."

Dr. Cirbus discusses this idea, along with founder and CEO of Therapy for Black Girls Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, and Well+Good general manager Kate Spies, during the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast.

One of the key differences is that digital therapy is done outside of the "container" of the therapist's office, meaning there's far more room for distraction, says Dr. Bradford.

"We talk about [the office] being this space that holds whatever the client is bringing in. There is some of that that's lost virtually because clients are still like, 'Okay, am I homeschooling? Or is my boss emailing?'" says Dr. Bradford. "People at this point are taking therapy sessions from their car or the bathroom and, you know, just trying to figure out a way to have some privacy and that, of course, is not ideal."

With people attending virtual appointments from their own environment, providing a bit of physical separation from their therapists, Dr. Bradford says they might feel more willing to open up.

"You're here with me, but the screen still separates us. And so you may feel a little more comfortable with sharing stuff that might've taken a little longer for you to share in the office," says Dr. Bradford. "That's something else that has played in favor of some of these more virtual kinds of spaces is that I do think it allows clients to be a little bit more vulnerable."

The experience of text therapy is different when a therapist cannot read a client's body language or hear the sound of their voice. However, text therapy also allows her to speak to someone in real-time while they're working through a situation.

"If you are my client and you're having a tough day, I'm getting you at that moment," she says. "I'm getting a text message from you, I'm getting a live chat with you, I'm getting a voice note from you on your commute to work, versus waiting until next Wednesday with your appointment with me and reporting on what that felt like. I get that accessibility right in that moment."

Whether you're seeing your therapist in person, texting with them throughout the week, or communicating in another way, it's important to do what feels right for you.

"This has been such a stressful past 18 months," says Dr. Bradford. "It feels like it's not letting up anytime soon. And so we're going to have to dig even deeper to even to make sure that we're taking good care of ourselves so that we can get to the other side of this."

Listen above, and subscribe to The Well+Good Podcast on AppleSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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