Virtual therapy: How to find the online mental health care provider that's right for you

Where to start, what to consider and what might be covered.

Where to start, what to consider and what might be covered

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Many of us are experiencing stress, worry and other emotional challenges right now as a result of COVID-19. If you're considering seeking out a mental health care provider, the good news is that many clinical practices do offer online and telephone sessions that you can access from home. And they stand to be quite helpful.

"The results for clients [with online counselling] are as good as in-person," says Lawrence Murphy, a counsellor, member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), and co-founder of Therapy Online. "There's video, as everybody imagines, but there's also text-based communication or email-style counselling. And the research is clear that it is as effective as in-person … the methods work, they're well-researched and they're effective." 

Below, a little on how to search for the provider that's right for you. But please note, if you suspect you may be dealing with a complex mental health issue or are in crisis, you should seek immediate help — consider contacting a 24-hour help line as a first step.

How to get started 

Beyond asking your general practitioner if they can recommend a provider who offers online care, you can also check out online resources. Murphy suggests searching for a certified counsellor on the CCPA website, contacting provincial social worker associations or looking at professional psychologist and therapist profiles on Psychology Today. Each profile includes a photo and detailed biography, and you can filter the results for your geographic area using categories such as specialty, insurance provider, languages spoken and whether they offer online therapy. You don't need a referral from your family doctor to start seeing a certified or registered psychologist, counsellor or social worker (note that designations — and the education and experience required to attain them — vary by province). However, you may need one to qualify for certain insurance coverage (more on that later). 

Nicole McCance, a clinical psychologist and the clinic director at Toronto Neurofeedback & Psychotherapy Centre, suggests searching the Psychology Today directory too, but says word of mouth is another great way to find a provider. "[See] who your friends recommend, who has really made a difference in their lives — that's number one," she says. 

What's the cost?

The Canadian Mental Health Association notes on its website that fees for psychologists and counsellors, unlike psychiatrists, are "not covered under all provincial or territorial health plans," but that the services of certain psychologists might be covered by public health care. If you have extended health-care coverage (through an employer, for example), some fees may be covered as well, but there might be additional requirements from the insurance company for reimbursement, such as a referral from your family doctor. 

McCance suggests contacting the professional you would like to see to find out what services are covered by public health care (if any) and if there are any limits and requirements they may know of for private coverage. Still, plans are specific. Be sure to contact your private insurance provider for information specific to your plan, which might guide your search and decision making, she says. "For example, some will require that a clinical psychologist with a PhD be involved [in your care, and] some require a registered social worker to be delivering the services."

Finding the right provider

"You want to feel comfortable with the [mental health care provider]; you want to feel like there's a connection there," says Murphy. Of course, your needs and requirements will influence the type of mental health professional you might consider seeing. "If you're experiencing something like a mental health disorder and you've had a diagnosis, then a clinical psychologist is usually the best person to speak to. For other sorts of issues, [such as] mild to moderate anxiety, family issues, relationship issues, interpersonal problems, addictions, that's where counsellors, therapists and social workers come in."  

McCance recommends that you take advantage of the complimentary initial consultation that some clinics offer, as finding the right match and relationship is key. You can use the consult to "interview" potential therapists by asking questions about their experience, knowledge and the kinds of clients they've worked with. As well, if you want a therapist with a particular specialty or approach — for example, experience with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — that will narrow and guide your search, she says. McCance also suggests picking a mental health care provider whose practice is conveniently located to your home, even for virtual therapy; that way, switching to in-person appointments is a feasible option in the future. 

Choosing a format that works for you

Virtual counselling encompasses online video, talk and written methods (via email, chat or text). Video therapy allows for face-to-face communication with your therapist, but it requires access to a strong internet connection, adequate bandwidth and a computer or smartphone. Be sure to confirm that your session will be conducted on a secure, encrypted platform. Telephone sessions don't have the benefit of visuals but might work better in some cases, says Murphy. "A lot of clients prefer not to be seen, and there's some research [that] suggests that there may be some issues that are better dealt with not through video." 

Conveniently, virtual therapy can be done outside of typical business hours (some clinics are offering flexible hours right now for parents with kids at home) and from almost anywhere there is an internet connection or cell phone signal. Of course these days, the challenge for some people will be finding a quiet, private spot at home — McCance notes that some of her clients have been calling from inside parked cars, while others are taking advantage of her clinic's "walk and talk" offering.

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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