Virtual blues

The online revolution is the most recent step in the development of counselling, an initiative that

Why try to explain how you are feeling when an emoticon can do it for you? The internet has now become the first port of call for pretty much anything, and these days ever more people are opting for virtual therapy sessions via email or web chat programmes such as MSN and Skype.

The online revolution is the most recent step in the development of counselling, an initiative that started with post-war couples looking to save a marriage in crisis. But the internet version has taken off in a way that telephone counselling never did. So who uses it, and why?

"There is an increasing group of young professionals who can't take the pace," says Kate Anthony, an online counselling pioneer who has done extensive research in the area. "The first place they turn for everything is the internet. And once they have made the decision to seek help, online counselling is the only way they can fit it into their busy schedule."

To respond to the growing number of their members offering online interactions, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has already published the second edition of guidelines for online counselling (2005), the most comprehensive set in the world. Last year, Anthony trained more than 50 counsellors in the art of virtual therapy.

Counsellors suspect that online services are also drawing in people who would not seek face-to-face counselling. "It's a new market," says Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the BACP. "Online work reduces the stigma of counselling for people who simply would not turn up to a session in person."

Hodson has treated not just young people, but "silver surfers" as well as clients from abroad including India - contrary to the stiff upper lip reputation of the British, our counselling services have a reputation for excellence. Anthony's experience further suggests that online counselling is particularly popular with two demographic groups in particular: university students and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/sexual) community.

Online counselling is changing the nature of therapy itself as well as its clients. Although web chats work in the same real-time conversational manner as traditional counselling sessions, email counselling does not. Usually started by the client's emailing an outline of their problem, at around 500 words, the interactions continue by essay, entailing relatively delayed responses and often lengthier input from the counsellor rather than the intermittent questions and prompts of a personal session.

"It's not for everyone," says Hodson, who currently does no work online. "The inarticulate person simply gets frustrated at not being able to express themselves. Can you imagine John Prescott in online counselling?"

But there are advantages. Some people find writing more conducive to opening up. And literally reading between the lines of an email can tell the therapist a lot; what hasn't been written can be as important as what has.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.