The rise of online counselling apps

By ISABELLA REHARTA 

Mental health app BetterHelp has seen significant growth as a result of video endorsements by social media stars.

The BetterHelp app is becoming increasingly popular due to being easily accessed via smartphone. Photo: Isabella Reharta

E-counselling apps such as BetterHelp aim to bridge the gap between patients and mental health professionals.

Users can connect with counsellors on BetterHelp through instant messages, phone calls or video chat for $35 a week.

Financial aid is also available for those who cannot afford the service.

Four million users have signed up with the US-based international service since July this year after social media stars such as YouTuber Shane Dawson endorsed the app in videos and other posts online.

Despite their rising popularity, some mental health experts are sceptical of the quality of counselling these apps can offer.

Monash University student counsellor and qualified health professional Dr Moira Junge said she had trouble trusting apps like BetterHelp.

Dr Junge said it was difficult to diagnose mental issues without assessing body language and using an app could lead to over-diagnosis.

“To see the full clinical picture could be difficult via an app. It is also very hard to really be truly sure that the person is who they say they are via an app,” she said.

Shane Dawson tweeted about his partnership with BetterHelp in one of his videos. Photo: twitter.com

“People need to be wary and remain vigilant since these apps will be dealing with vulnerable people.” Dr Junge said she would like to see evidence that the person claiming to be a counsellor on the app actually was the qualified person they said they were. 

Apps like BetterHelp would be best used in conjunction with face-to-face counselling, she said. “It can be used as an alternative to stay connected outside sessions.”

Licensed therapist and BetterHelp community and clinical support manager Haesue Jo said the app’s popularity helped break down the negative stigma around therapy and counselling.

Haesue Jo

“Apps like BetterHelp provide discrete, affordable, and convenient ways to connect with licensed professionals,” Ms Jo said. She said doing therapy via apps could be more cost-effective as patients could connect with counsellors anywhere through their phone.

She said traditional offline therapy sometimes had barriers that could make it difficult to seek out and find help.

“What we’re doing is trying to reduce some of those barriers so that more people can have access,” Ms Jo said.

Bena*, who has been using Betterhelp for four months, said the app’s accessibility saved her time, as it eliminated waiting periods.

“It makes it easy for me to just set up an appointment and talk to a professional through my phone or laptop,” she said.

Bena said she could chose a counsellor suited to topics relevant to her.

She said the app was helpful for people who weren’t comfortable talking to professionals in person.

The BetterHelp website shows how many sessions have been completed and the number of therapists available. Photo: Betterhelp.com

“I believe when someone is having a really bad day or feels really depressed, they should be given the choice to get help from home,” Bena said.

A study by Black Dog institute found one in five Australians aged 18 to 65 experienced some form of mental illness in a year, and more than half did not have access to any treatment.

A study by NCBI found availability of professionals, time, financial restrictions and negative stigmas surrounding mental illness often stood in the way of treatment.

*Name has been changed.