9 Tips for Online Mental Health Therapy
Telehealth offers a vast improvement in access and convenience to all sorts of medical services, and online therapy for mental health is one of the most promising case studies for telehealth. With many online therapy options available, you can choose whatever works best for you. Yet many people are hesitant about using online therapy. Even if they do give it a try, they often don’t know how to make the most effective use of this treatment modality.
Why do so many feel uncertain about online therapy? A major reason stems from its novelty. Humans are creatures of habit, prone to falling for what behavioral scientists like myself call the status quo bias, a predisposition to stick to traditional practices and behaviors. Many people reject innovative solutions even when they would be helpful. Thus, while teletherapy was available long before the pandemic, and might have fit the needs of many potential clients, relatively few took advantage of this option.
Even when we do try new methodologies, we often don’t do so effectively, because we cling to the same approaches that worked in previous situations. Scientists call this behavior functional fixedness. It’s kind of like the saying about the hammer-nail syndrome: “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
These two mental blindspots, the status quo bias and functional fixedness, impact decision making in many areas of life. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective and pragmatic strategies to defeat these dangerous errors in judgment. The nine tips below will help you make the best decisions to get effective online therapy, based on the latest research.
For instance, a 2014 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders reported that online treatment proved just as effective as face-to-face treatment for depression. A 2018 study, published in Journal of Psychological Disorders, found that online cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, was just as effective as face-to-face treatment for major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. And a 2014 study in Behaviour Research and Therapy discovered that online CBT proved effective in treating anxiety disorders, and helped lower costs of treatment.
During the forced teletherapy of COVID, therapists worried that those with serious mental health conditions would be less likely to convert to teletherapy. Yet research published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly has helped to alleviate that concern. It found that those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, PTSD, and even suicidality converted to teletherapy at about the same rate as those with less severe mental health challenges.
Yet teletherapy may not be for everyone. For example, adolescents had the most varied response to teletherapy, according to a 2020 study in Family Process. Some adapted quickly and easily, while others found it awkward and anxiety-inducing. On the whole, children with trauma respond worse to online therapy, per a 2020 study in Child Abuse & Neglect. The treatment of mental health issues can sometimes require in-person interactions, such as the use of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And according to a 2020 study from the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, online therapy may not be as effective for those suffering from loneliness.
Online therapy is much more accessible than in-person therapy for those with a decent internet connection, webcam, mic, and digital skills. You don’t have to commute to your therapist’s office, wasting money and time. You can take much less medical leave from work, saving you money and hassle with your boss. If you live in a sparsely populated area, online therapy could allow you to access manyspecializedkinds of therapy that isn’t accessible locally.
Online options are much quicker compared to the long waiting lines for in-person therapy. You also have much more convenient scheduling options. And you won’t have to worry about running into someone you know in the waiting room. Online therapy is easier to conceal from others and reduces stigma. Many patients may feel more comfortable and open to sharing in the privacy and comfort of their own home.
You can use a variety of communication tools suited to your needs at any given time. Video can be used to start a relationship with a therapist and have more intense and nuanced discussions, but can be draining, especially for those with social anxiety. Voice-only may work well for less intense discussions. Email offers a useful option for long-form, well-thought-out messages. Texting is useful for quick, real-time questions, answers, and reinforcement.
Plus, online therapy is often cheaper than in-person therapy. In the midst of COVID, many insurance providers have decided to cover online therapy.
One weakness is the requirement for appropriate technology and skills to engage in online therapy. Another is the difficulty of forming a close therapeutic relationship with your therapist. You won’t be able to communicate non-verbals as fully and the therapist will not be able to read you as well, requiring you to be more deliberate in how you express yourself.
Another important issue is that online therapy is subject to less government oversight compared to the in-person approach, which is regulated in each state, providing a baseline of quality control. As a result, you have to do more research on the providers that offer online therapy to make sure they’re reputable, use only licensed therapists, and have a clear and transparent pay structure.
Figure out what kind of goals you want to achieve. Consider how, within the context of your goals, you can leverage the benefits of online therapy while addressing the weaknesses. Write down and commit to achieving your goals. Remember, you need to be your own advocate, especially in the less regulated space of online therapy, so focus on being proactive in achieving your goals.
Because online therapy can occur at various times of day through videos calls, emails and text, it might feel more open-ended and less organized, which can have advantages and disadvantages. One way you can give it more structure is to ground these interactions in the story of your self-improvement. Our minds perceive the world through narratives. Create a story of how you’ll get from where you are to where you want to go, meaning your goals.
A good template to use is the Hero’s Journey. Start the narrative with where you are, and what caused you to seek therapy. Write about the obstacles you will need to overcome, and the kind of help from a therapist that you’ll need in the process. Then, describe the final end state: how will you be better off after this journey, including what you will have learned.
Especially in online therapy, you need to be on top of things. Too many people let the therapist manage the treatment plan. As you pursue your hero’s journey, another way to organize for success is to take notes on your progress, and reevaluate how you’re doing every month with your therapist.
Since it’s more difficult to be confident about the quality of service providers in an online setting, you should identify in advance the traits of your desired therapist. Every Hero’s Journey involves a mentor figure who guides the protagonist through this journey. So who’s your ideal mentor? Write out their top 10 characteristics, from most to least important.
For example, you might want someone who is:
- Good listener
That’s my list. Depending on what challenge you’re facing and your personality and preferences, you should make your own. Then, when you are matched with a therapist, evaluate how well they fit your ideal list.
When you first match with a therapist, try to fail fast. That means, instead of focusing on getting treatment, focus on figuring out if the therapist is a good match based on the traits you identified above. That will enable you to move on quickly if they’re not, and it’s very much worth it to figure that out early.
Tell them your goals, your story, and your vision of your ideal mentor. Ask them whether they think they are a match, and what kind of a treatment plan they would suggest based on the information you provided. And observe them yourself in your initial interactions, focusing on whether they’re a good match. Often, you’ll find that your initial vision of your ideal mentor is incomplete, and you’ll learn through doing therapy what kind of a therapist is the best fit for you.
This small subgoal should be sufficient to be meaningful and impactful for improving your mental health, but not a big stretch for you to achieve. This subgoal should be a tool for you to use to evaluate whether the therapist is indeed a good fit for you. It will also help you evaluate whether the treatment plan makes sense, or whether it needs to be revised.
As you approach the end of your planned work and you see you’re reaching your goals, talk to the therapist about how to wrap up rather than letting things drag on for too long. You don’t want to become dependent on therapy: it’s meant to be a temporary intervention. Some less scrupulous therapists will insist that therapy should never end and we should all stay in therapy forever, and you want to avoid falling for this line. When you reach your goals, end your therapy, unless you discover a serious new reason to continue it. Still, it may be wise to set up occasional check-ins once every three to six months to make sure you’re staying on the right track.
When Erika Schreder’s 14-year-old daughter, who is Black, had her curly hair braided at a Seattle-area salon two or three times recently, the hairdresser applied a styling gel to seal the tresses in place.
Schreder and her daughter had been trying to avoid harmful chemicals, so they were shocked to later learn that this particular gel had the highest level of formaldehyde of any product tested by the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health. In January 2023, the agencies released a report that uncovered high levels of formaldehyde in certain hair products, creams and lotions marketed to or used by people of color. When Schreder saw the report, she mentioned it to her daughter, who told her the name of the gel smoothed on her hair.
“It was really upsetting,” said Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based nonprofit environmental health research and advocacy organization. “Learning that this product used on my daughter’s hair contained cancer-causing formaldehyde made me even more committed to advocating for our state to ban toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.”
In 2013, Toxic-Free Future launched Mind the Store to challenge the nation’s largest retailers in adopting comprehensive policies that eliminate toxic chemicals in their personal care products and packaging, and develop safer alternatives.
Now, more efforts are underway to expose and mitigate the harm in cosmetics, hair care and other products that children apply on their faces, heads, nails and other body parts. Advocates hope to raise awareness among parents while prompting manufacturers and salon professionals to adopt safer alternatives.
A recent study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, revealed that most children in the United States use makeup and body products that may contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. In January, the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Based on more than 200 surveys, 70 percent of parents in the study reported that their children 12 or younger have used makeup and body products marketed to youth — for instance, glitter, face paint and lip gloss.
Childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.
“We are concerned about exposure to chemicals that may be found in cosmetics and body products, including those that are marketed toward children,” said the study’s senior author, Julie Herbstman, a professor and director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. The goal of the survey was to try to understand how much kids are using cosmetic and body products and when, how and why they are using them.
“There is widespread use of children’s cosmetic and body products, and kids are using them principally to play,” Herbstman said. “That’s really quite different than how adults use cosmetic and body products.” Even with products that are specifically designed for children, “there’s no regulation that ensures that these products are safe for kids.” Also, she said, some children are using adult products — and they may do so in inadvisable ways, such as ingesting lipstick or applying it to other areas of the face.
Earlier research demonstrated that beauty and personal care products manufactured for children and adults frequently contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, asbestos, PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde. Heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in children’s makeup and body products are particularly harmful to infants and youth, who are growing rapidly and whose bodies are less efficient at metabolizing these chemicals. Whether these chemicals are added intentionally or are present as contaminants, they have been associated with cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, and other serious and irreversible health effects, the Columbia University and Earthjustice researchers noted.
“Even when concentrations of individual chemicals are low in products, the potential for interactive effects from multiple toxicants is important to take into consideration,” the authors wrote in the journal article. “Allergic reactions, such as contact dermatitis, are some of the most frequently cited negative health outcomes associated with the use of cosmetics.”
Children’s small body side, rapid growth rate and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults.
In addition to children’s rapid growth rate, the study also reported that their small body size, developing tissues and organs, and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults. Meanwhile, the study noted, “childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.”
Although adults are the typical users of cosmetics, similar items are heavily marketed to youth with attention-grabbing features such as bright colors, animals and cartoon characters, according to the study. Beyond conventional makeup such as eyeshadow and lipstick, children may apply face paint, body glitter, nail polish, hair gel and fragrances. They also may frequent social media platforms on which these products are increasingly being promoted.
Products for both children and adults are currently regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Also, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 directs the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA “to issue regulations requiring that all ‘consumer commodities’ be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product's manufacturer, packer, or distributor.” As the Columbia University and Earthjustice authors pointed out, though, “current safety regulations have been widely criticized as inadequate.”
The Personal Care Products Council in Washington, D.C., “fundamentally disagrees with the premise that companies put toxic chemicals in products produced for children,” industry spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. Founded in 1894, the national trade association represents 600 member companies that manufacture, distribute and supply most personal care products marketed in the United States.
“No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products.” --Environmental Working Group.
“Science and safety are the cornerstones of our industry,” Powers stated. For more than a decade, she wrote, “the [Council] and our member companies worked diligently with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness of the FDA regulatory authority and to provide the safety reassurances that consumers expect and deserve.”
Powers added that the “industry employs and consults thousands of scientific and medical experts” who study the impacts of cosmetics and personal care products and the ingredients used in them. The Council also maintains a comprehensive database where consumers can look up science and safety information on the thousands of ingredients in sunscreens, toothpaste, shampoo, moisturizer, makeup, fragrances and other products.
However, the Environmental Working Group, which empowers consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices about healthy living, believes the regulations are still not robust enough. “No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products,” states the organization’s website. “Although many of the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products likely pose little risk, exposure to some has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.”
The group, which operates the Skin Deep Database noted that “since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”
But change, for both adults and kids, is on the horizon. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 significantly expanded the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics. In May 2023, Washington state adopted a law regulating cosmetics and personal care products. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) bans chemicals in beauty and personal care products, such as PFAS, lead, mercury, phthalates and formaldehyde-releasing agents. These bans take effect in 2025, except for formaldehyde releasers, which have a phased-in approach starting in 2026.
Industry and advocates view this as a positive development. Powers, the spokesperson, praised “the long-awaited” Modernization Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022, which she said, “advances product safety and innovation.” Jen Lee, chief impact officer at Beautycoutner, a company that sells personal care products, also welcomes the change. “We were proud to support the Washington Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) by mobilizing our community of Brand Advocates who reside in Washington State,” Lee said. “Together, they made their voices heard by sending over 1,000 emails to their state legislators urging them to support and pass the bill.”
Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, praised the upcoming Washington state law as “a huge win for public health and the environment that will have impacts that ripple across the nation.” She added that “companies won’t make special products for Washington state.” Instead, “they will reformulate and make products safer for everyone” — adults and children.
You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.-- Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena
The new legislation will require Washington state agencies to assess the hazards of chemicals used in products that can impact vulnerable populations, while providing support for small businesses and independent cosmetologists to transition to safer products.
The Toxic Free Future team lauds the Cosmetics Act, signed in May 2023.
Courtesy Toxic Free Future
“When we go to a store, we assume the products on the shelf are safe, but this isn’t always true,” said Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena, a Democrat serving in the 29th Legislative District (Tacoma), who sponsored the law. “I introduced this bill (HB 1047) because currently, the burden is on the consumer to navigate labels and find safe alternatives. You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.”
The new law aims to protect people of all ages, but especially youth. “Children are more susceptible to the impacts of toxic chemicals because their bodies are still developing,” Mena said. “Lead, for example, is significantly more hazardous to children than adults. Also, since children, unlike adults, tend to put things in their mouths all the time, they are more exposed to harmful chemicals in personal care and other products.”
Cosmetologists and hair professionals are taking notice. “Safety should be the practitioner’s number one concern” in using products on small children, said Anwar Saleem, a hair stylist, instructor and former salon owner in Washington, D.C., who is chairman of the D.C. Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology. “There are so many products on the market that it can be confusing.”
Hair products designed and labeled for children's use often have milder formulations, but “every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another,” Saleem said. He recommends doing a patch test, in which the stylist or cosmetologist dabs the product on a small, inconspicuous area of the scalp or skin and waits anywhere from an hour to a day to check for irritation before continuing to serve the client. “Performing a patch test, observing children's reactions to a product and adequately adjusting are essential.”
Saleem seeks products that are free from harsh chemicals such as sulfates, phthalates and parabens, noting that these ingredients can be irritating and drying to the hair and scalp. If a child has sensitive skin or allergies, Saleem opts for hypoallergenic products.
We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers. It’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives-- Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá.
Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said current regulatory loopholes on product labeling still allow manufacturers to advertise their cosmetics and personal care products as “gentle” and “natural.” However, she said, those terms may be misleading as they don’t necessarily mean the contents are less toxic or harmful to consumers.
“We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers,” Quirós-Alcalá said, “as often alternatives considered to be less toxic come with a hefty price tag.” As a result, “it’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives.”
To advocate for safer alternatives, Quirós-Alcalá suggests that parents turn to consumer groups involved in publicizing the harms of personal care products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a program of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, a national science-based advocacy organization aiming to prevent the disease by eliminating related environmental exposures. Other resources that inform users about unsafe ingredients include the mobile apps Clearya and Think Dirty.
“Children are not little adults, so it’s important to increase parent and consumer awareness to minimize their exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “Becoming smarter, more knowledgeable consumers is the first step to protecting your family from potentially harmful and toxic ingredients in consumer products.”
Story by Big Think
On June 12, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed 72 small satellites for customers — including the world’s first space factory.
The challenge: In 2019, pharma giant Merck revealed that an experiment on the International Space Station had shown how to make its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda more stable. That meant it could now be administered via a shot rather than through an IV infusion.
The key to the discovery was the fact that particles behave differently when freed from the force of gravity — seeing how its drug crystalized in microgravity helped Merck figure out how to tweak its manufacturing process on Earth to produce the more stable version.
Microgravity research could potentially lead to many more discoveries like this one, or even the development of brand-new drugs, but ISS astronauts only have so much time for commercial experiments.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth.”-- Will Bruey.
The only options for accessing microgravity (or free fall) outside of orbit, meanwhile, are parabolic airplane flights and drop towers, and those are only useful for experiments that require less than a minute in microgravity — Merck’s ISS experiment took 18 days.
The idea: In 2021, California startup Varda Space Industries announced its intention to build the world’s first space factory, to manufacture not only pharmaceuticals but other products that could benefit from being made in microgravity, such as semiconductors and fiber optic cables.
This factory would consist of a commercial satellite platform attached to two Varda-made modules. One module would contain equipment capable of autonomously manufacturing a product. The other would be a reentry capsule to bring the finished goods back to Earth.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth,” said CEO Will Bruey, who’d previously developed and flown spacecraft for SpaceX.
“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers, focused on getting working hardware to orbit as quickly as possible,” he continued.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass. And they also have a large market on Earth.” -- Will Bruey, CEO of Varda Space.
What’s new? At the time, Varda said it planned to launch its first space factory in 2023, and, in what feels like a first for a space startup, it has actually hit that ambitious launch schedule.
“We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL,” the startup tweeted soon after the Falcon 9 launch on June 12. “The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble.”
During the satellite’s first week in space, Varda will focus on testing its systems to make sure everything works as hoped. The second week will be dedicated to heating and cooling the old HIV-AIDS drug ritonavir repeatedly to study how its particles crystalize in microgravity.
After about a month in space, Varda will attempt to bring its first space factory back to Earth, sending it through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and then using a parachute system to safely land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Looking ahead: Ultimately, Varda’s space factories could end up serving dual purposes as manufacturing facilities and hypersonic testbeds — the Air Force has already awarded the startup a contract to use its next reentry capsule to test hardware for hypersonic missiles.
But as for manufacturing other types of goods, Varda plans to stick with drugs for now.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass,” Bruey told CNN. “And they also have a large market on Earth.”
“You’re not going to see Varda do anything other than pharmaceuticals for the next minimum of six, seven years,” added Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder and president.