Online therapy on the rise as demand for mental health support grows, but does it help? – ABC News

Online therapy on the rise as demand for mental health support grows, but does it help?
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Demand for mental health support in Australia shows no signs of easing with one in three psychologists unable to take new patients and reports of year-long waitlists in some areas.
Recent surveys, such as the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, show an increase in reports of poor mental health across most demographics.
It comes as the federal government prepares to reduce the number of Medicare-rebated mental health sessions from 20 to 10 a year, leaving more Australians potentially turning to alternatives to find help for mental health struggles.
But how do you find reputable and legitimate online alternatives to in-person therapy, and are they helpful?
Swinburne University of Technology National e-Therapy Centre director Associate Professor Neil Thomas says research shows that, for some conditions, online self-guided therapy options can be just as beneficial as in-person sessions. 
"A therapy like cognitive behaviour therapy … lends itself quite well to having content which the person can use in a self-guided way," he says.
A range of self-guided courses are available online for help with conditions such as anxiety and depression, the two most commonly reported mental health issues in Australia.
"There is some important elements of this to bear in mind though, which is about the way in which someone engages in the program," Dr Thomas says.
"What we would say is, the best model is a program where there's some [trained counsellor or psychologist] support available."
Australian Psychological Society president and counselling psychologist Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe says online and mobile app options can be "very appropriate for some people".
"But it really depends on the person's condition, and probably on the severity of their symptoms," she says.
"People need to ensure that they're engaging with service providers who are regulated.
"They need to check the health providers credentials. You know, who are they regulated with?"
A quick online search for mental health support brings up countless results, while social media platforms are full of adverts for apps, ranging from one-on-one sessions via online communication to self-guided modules.
Dr Thomas says the best way to make sure you are picking a reputable resource that draws from evidence-based psychology is to pick an Australian option listed on the federal government website Head to Health.
"In Australia, we have some advantages [because the] Australian government has been funding these mental health services, so there is some degree of oversight of those," he says.
Dr Thomas says the federal government is currently working to introduce a set of digital mental health quality and safety standards, which online offerings will have to meet in order to receive government funding.
There are some common myths about the role of a psychologist, such as that a psychologist is a friend, they'll provide a quick fix for problems, or they'll never disagree with a client.
Large international digital therapy companies are accessible in Australia, usually for a fee, and are often promoted on social platforms such as YouTube and TikTok to appeal to younger people.
But these companies are not based in Australia and their standards may be different.
Their fees also cannot be covered by the Medicare rebate and will usually be ineligible under Australian private health insurance.
Dr Davis-McCabe says the title of psychologist is a protected profession in Australia, meaning anybody calling themselves one has to be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia and listed with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
Credentials of anybody claiming to be a psychologist can be looked up online.
Counsellor is not a protected profession, however, meaning there is no minimum training, experience or official registration required to use the title.
Counsellors may choose to register themselves with the Australian Counselling Association on the Australian Register of Counsellors and Psychotherapists.
While online offerings such as Swinburne's Mental Health Online and Macquarie University's MindSpot are free, these options cannot be used for formally diagnosing a mental health condition or accessing medications.
"If somebody has a really significant anxiety problem, which is preventing them from leaving the house or avoiding social situations … it may take more than counselling to help break out of those patterns," Dr Thomas says.
He says Head to Health and the Australian Psychological Society website are helpful places to find a mental health professional.
But Dr Thomas believes the traditional path of speaking to a GP to form a mental health plan is generally the best place to start finding support.
Dr Davis-McCabe says it is important people are not put off from seeking professional help, even if it may take a while before they see someone.
"If there is a waitlist, book the appointment [anyway]," she says.
"Knowing you have an appointment coming up can also provide a bit of comfort in that meantime."
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