The History Of Online Therapy And Teletherapy

Updated on May 1, 2020

For much of recorded history, mental health was a field of practice relegated to hospitals and private offices. 

While discretion was for the most part a vital component, men and women of centuries (even decades) prior would have shaken their heads in disbelief at the popular online therapy model of today.

More affordable than traditional therapy and employing fully licensed professionals, online therapy’s key feature is its very platform: all sessions are conducted online via the client’s electronic device of choice, and at the time that best suits the user’s scheduling concerns. 

Teletherapy works in a similar fashion, with all sessions held over the phone. As more and more people turn to alternative means of receiving mental healthcare, it’s worth looking back on the origins of online therapy and teletherapy, and the innovative minds that made them accessible to the public.

Origins and Innovators

While mental health scholars debate the exact moment in history when online therapy was introduced to the world, it is widely agreed upon that the 1972 International Conference On 

Computers unveiled the concept of computerized therapy, with UCLA and Stanford staff conducting psychotherapy sessions via linked computers. 

While no actual therapist was employed, nor was the internet in use, it was the first notable instance of what would later become the basis for online therapy.

Teletherapy’s backstory goes back even further–at least to the 1960’s–when therapists and their clients began to chat over the phone, rather than in person.

The rudimentary start of internet-based online therapy is often attributed to anonymous Cornell staffer “Uncle Ezra,” and his Q&A-style mental health forum founded in 1986. 

According to a 2007 Cornell Chronicle article, Dear Uncle Ezra provided answers and mental health insights to nearly 20,000 users (many but not all of them Cornell students) around the globe. 

The article would go on to reveal Dear Uncle Ezra’s creators, former assistant dean of students for counseling and training Jerry Feist, and the former director of the Cornell Counseling Center, Steve Worona.

While Dear Uncle Ezra answered users’ questions on a weekly basis, it was Dr. David Sommers who developed the online therapy model as we know it today. 

In 1995, Sommers began to conduct paid one-on-one therapy sessions with patients via email and real-time chat forums, which allowed him to extend his care to individuals around the world. 

That same year Cyberpsych Counseling was launched by professional therapist Ed Needham, which provided hour-long counseling sessions for $15 a pop.

Therapy For The 21st Century

The new millennium saw the swift rise in online therapy’s popularity, with teletherapy enjoying less reported but equally steady use. 

Many businesses and individuals have extended their practices to include online counseling services, with Talkspace founders Oren and Roni Frank leading the charge in establishing an online therapy platform that boasted an extensive listing of professionals, individually-targeted services for all electronic devices, and in-depth peer reviews and staff writing.

Following the 2012 launch of Talkspace, countless online therapy providers have continued to change the face of therapy and, to a greater extent, society’s mental health outlook. 

Gone were the stigmas and uncomfortable correlations of seeking professional help; online therapy provided users with a safe, discreet, and convenient alternative to the traditional brick-and-mortar model.

Is Online Therapy As Beneficial As An In-Office Visit?

There continues to be a back-and-forth discussion regarding the efficacy of online therapy and teletherapy vs in-office visits. 

While much of the debate comes down to personal choice, studies in support of online therapy are worth taking into consideration. 

Between 2004 and 2017 a number of significant reports surfaced from respected institutions such as Columbia University and the University of Zurich.

As early as 2004, researchers at Columbia University found that cognitive behavioral therapy conducted over computer led to a greater satisfaction among patients, as opposed to the more traditional therapy structure. 

A decade later, the University of Zurich would reveal similar findings, concluding in a published report that “internet-based intervention for depression is equally beneficial to regular face-to-face therapy.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of online therapy, the medium continues to struggle amongst its peers for legal and ethical acknowledgement. In 1997 the International Society for Mental Health Online (ISMHO) was founded by a group of professionals dedicated to the promotion and advancement of online mental health implements, with a number of similar organizations quickly following suit.

Privacy continues to be the headlining topic of concern where online therapy is concerned, with potential users and professionals questioning the security of sensitive exchanges and information. 

In addition, more and more mental health professionals are educating themselves on ethical and effective online practices, displaying a keen awareness of the subtle differences between in-office and online counseling.

What Is The Future Of Online Therapy?

Mental health is a continually evolving topic, but one thing is certain: one’s mental health and overall wellbeing are of inarguable importance. 

While many continue to prefer meeting with their therapist face-to-face, an increasing number of people are turning to alternative mental health services, such as online therapy and teletherapy, to receive the professional help they need. 

Given that online therapy is now a billion-dollar industry, with millions and growing in investment capital, it’s not likely that the approach will undergo the fate of so many trends and fads in the realm of wellness.

One’s mental health, and the care they pursue to recover and maintain it, is an extremely personal matter that is not easily summed up, no matter the facts and figures presented. In short, what works for some may be a detriment to others. 

Well-founded research, continued peer reviews, and ongoing technical improvements will no doubt determine the future of online therapy. 

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