Here’s how to navigate the overwhelming world of online mental health resources

Dr. Alok Patel is In The Know’s wellness contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more.

Instagram ads usually annoy me. I don’t need silk pajamas or any help boosting my engagement. I’m good. But every time I see an ad for a mental health service, I nod my head in appreciation.

Life was already a rollercoaster for many and then came a pandemic, which littered the world with illness, job loss, isolation and, not surprisingly, a rise in mental health concerns. According to one report from last month, 56 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, which is higher than any other age group.

As a result, online mental health services now seem to be everywhere. As an observer, this seemed convenient — but once I took a closer look, I realized it could also be overwhelming. So I phoned some friends.

I spoke with two people seeking therapy and one mental health specialist to find out how to get started with online resources.

Own Your Feelings

Summer, for instance, is a 24-year-old who recently sought therapy for her anxiety and depression symptoms. She says she knew exactly what she was experiencing, and this helped her narrow her search via online platforms. 

But for people out there who aren’t sure how to categorize their emotions, try jotting down symptoms you’re experiencing. Consider trying this survey from Betterhelp — which includes screening questions about general health, alcohol use, signs of depression and more — to help along the way. Being open about what you may be experiencing is vital when it comes to matching you with the right therapist.

Understand The Types Of Professionals

I tried using online therapy search engines — and quickly got lost. I’m currently in San Francisco, and quickly found several psychiatrists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, licensed clinical social workers and other therapists in my area. Knowing the differences is helpful.

“A first step on deciding the type of therapist you need is to differentiate between clinical and non-clinical services,” Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said.

“If you’re looking for a full diagnostic evaluation or think you might need medications because of a high score on an online screening tool, you’ll want to see a psychiatrist first,” she explained. “If you’re looking for therapy or to get plugged into a little support, you can go to a psychiatrist — but you can also see a number of other licensed therapists.”

Who You Are Matters

We all come in different shapes, sizes and colors. It’s OK, and often expected, to try and find a therapist who matches your individuality.

Cody, a 29 year-old living in Los Angeles, said this approach worked well for her. She began using BetterHelp after she lost her job during the pandemic. 

“I was able to choose a woman or non-binary therapist, select which specialties they needed to have, along with age, race, LGBTQ familiarity, religion and more,” she said.

Dr. Chaudhary emphasized the need to find a therapist who affirms your identities.

“Typically the fit between a person and their therapist is one of the stronger predictors of that person’s recovery,” she said.

Don’t be afraid to shop around.

Choosing A Therapy Style

It’s hard to immediately know if you prefer messaging versus Zoom or cognitive behavioral therapy versus humanistic therapy. Summer felt in-person therapy gave her a greater sense of accountability. On the other hand, Cody utilizes an app journal and texts with her therapist in between sessions. 

“A good therapist will evaluate you and get a sense for what type of therapy they think you need — whether it’s with them or someone else,” said Dr. Chaudhary.

A little background research helps too. Simple questionnaires, such as one from the Anxiety and Depression Association Centers for America, can help people decide between group, messaging or telemental services.

Play trial and error and find what works best for you.

Then, You Have To Pay For It

You’ll notice huge price differences online, with therapists charging anywhere from $90 to more than $300 per session, while apps can range from $90 per week to $69.99 annually. If these prices are prohibitive for you, try looking at free online resources.

If you have health insurance, you may have coverage for mental health services. Some employers even offer access to online therapy. For example, Mod Pizza and Yelp offer Talkspace to eligible employees, and Starbucks recently partnered with Headspace.

Don’t forget about your school, university or college. You may find a good starting point that costs you nothing more than picking up the phone.

Treat Your Mind — And Get Started!

We collectively need to smash the mental health stigma. Taking care of one’s mental well-being should be outwardly celebrated, just like work accomplishments, fancy vacations and #BeachBodyWorkouts.

Summer openly feels that therapy and having a non-judgemental space to express feelings is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves. 

Cody felt similarly. “Just do it,” she said. “These online services have brought real therapists onto your screen, and I think it’s amazing it’s so accessible. What do you have to lose?”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or mental health concerns, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 1-800-950-6264. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the NAMI website to learn more about signs and symptoms of various mental health conditions.

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